Shaky Sloane Stephens finds her feet again following Serena Williams storm
Victory over world No 1 at the Australian Open was marred by row over being cold-shouldered
From the heat of a Melbourne summer to the chill of a European spring, it has been a challenging journey for Sloane Stephens. Remember her? The then 19-year-old American charmed everyone at the Australian Open in January with her engaging smile and her stunning tennis as she reached the semi-finals after knocking out the tournament favourite, Serena Williams. It was the perfect fairytale: a black American teenager beating the woman everyone thought she had grown up admiring as a role model.
Stephens, who was the youngest player in the world's top 50 following her breakthrough year in 2012 and was hailed as the future of American tennis, appeared to have the world at her feet after Melbourne. Such is the glorious uncertainty of sport, however, that her horizons soon looked very different. Stephens won just two of her next nine matches and by the time she began the tournament in Rome last week had suffered defeat first time out in four of her previous six tournaments.
Perhaps even more distressingly, a furore had broken out over remarks Stephens had made in an American magazine. In the article Stephens claimed Williams had cold-shouldered her after their match in Melbourne. "She's not said one word to me, not spoken to me, not said 'hi', not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia," Stephens told ESPN The Magazine. "And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter."
Stephens, who later claimed that she had believed those comments were not part of the interview, sought out Williams at the next tournament. She said subsequently that their conversation had gone well and that the two players had "moved on". The rebuilding of bridges seems to have helped her tennis a little too: Stephens won two matches in Rome last week before losing 6-2, 6-3 to China's Shuai Peng in the quarter-finals in Brussels.
Perhaps it is the thought of competing on the highest stage again at next week's French Open that has fired up Stephens. "I love the Slams," she says. "I guess it's what any tennis player lives for, the Grand Slams. It's an opportunity to get better, to win matches, to be out on the court."
Stephens is clearly a big-occasion player, but does she ever suffer from nerves? "Yes, at some times more than others, but it's all part of the game really," she said. "I think people often get nervous before they go out on the court, but once you start playing you don't really feel it. I just run around, get loose and try not to think about it. I just try to focus on what I'm going to do."
The Australian Open, Stephens said, had been "just a good tournament and a good result" and an experience she had taken in her stride. "I think that's the only way to do it, because otherwise it would be crazy in your head, thinking of all the things that could happen, what you should be doing," she said. "I just try to look positively at things and keep moving forward."
Given the personal tragedies Stephens has lived through, it is no surprise that it takes more than a tennis match to faze her. Her parents split up when she was a baby and her stepfather, who had played a big part in her tennis, died after a lengthy battle with cancer when she was 14. Two years later her natural father, who had made contact with her again in her teens, was killed in a car crash.
Williams was described in some quarters earlier this year as a mentor to Stephens, but the world No 17 now insists: "The first time we ever actually talked was last year in Brisbane. It was in a locker room. We just said 'hi' and 'bye' and that was it."
If the media in Melbourne gave the wrong impression about their relationship, Stephens did little at the time to challenge the convenient assumption that the two black Americans were close. She described Williams in one interview as "one of my really good friends" and talked about having posters of the 15-times Grand Slam singles champion on her bedroom wall when she was growing up.
Stephens now says their relationship had never gone beyond a few brief exchanges in the locker room and that she had simply admired Venus and Serena Williams as "two of the greatest players who ever played the game". She said neither race or skin colour ever came into her thinking. "Personally my favourite player has always been Kim Clijsters," Stephens added.
The jibe about Williams unfollowing her on Twitter might have come as no surprise to anyone aware of Stephens' interest in social media. In 2012 she said she wanted 30,000 followers on Twitter by the end of the year (she now has almost 62,000). Her next goal is to reach 100,000 by the end of this year. Serena Williams has more than 3.7 million followers.
Stephens, who is good friends with Laura Robson, described her own forehand and movement as her greatest strengths, but said she could improve her mental approach and her volleys. Was there any one player she was modelling her game on? Given the recent controversy, her answer was no surprise. "No, I just want to be me," she said.
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