AUSTRALIAN OPEN: The Myth of Sloane and ESPN’s Role in It

 

 

Sloane Stephens’ arrival was always a myth. That’s the cold truth. American tennis is so desperate for something to hold on to that Stephens was promoted from prospect to arrival to star even though none of that ever really happened.

That’s not her fault, though she seems to have believed in the Myth of Sloane And now, it’s too late to go back to being a prodigy.

She lost to Victoria Azarenka for the third year in a row at the Australian Open. This time, it was 6-3, 6-2 in the first round. And while people are openly wondering what went wrong with Stephens, I can tell you this:

Nothing went wrong. She has not gone backward. She is the same player she always was. She is just standing still, unable to climb the last step to the top that her current critics/former supporters pretended as if she had climbed two years ago. Why did they pretend? It was a sales pitch meant to help them, not to reflect on Stephens.

She is not a young quarterback who won the Super Bowl, but never went back. She didn’t win 20 games as a rookie Major League pitcher and then fizzle out. She has never won a tournament. Not a major, not a minor.

Never.

She doesn’t have a big enough serve. And she also doesn’t have any fire in her belly, which probably helps her stay cool in the majors against the lesser, more-nervous players, but isn’t enough to take down the top players in the biggest moments. Her pilot light is out or something, and it’s just so annoying to see such a talented player with such a flaw (see: Querrey, Sam).

But here’s the thing: That has always been true of her. To prove otherwise would have been to take the next step.

Yet a column on ESPN.com today talked about Stephens’ continued troubles: “We officially crowned Stephens as America’s next big thing and the heir apparent to Serena Williams after she beat Serena in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open here two years ago at age 19.”

Yes, two years ago, Stephens beat Williams, and suddenly Stephens was doing interviews and on magazine covers. She had broken into mainstream popularity and pop culture. But that wasn’t the defining moment for Stephens. It was just the defining moment in the Myth of Sloane.

Exactly what did that ESPN writer mean by “We?” when he said that we had officially crowned Stephens? Is that a royal “We?” Just some general statement condemning everyone for short-sightedness? Because what I remember writing after Stephens beat Williams two years ago was that Serena was seriously hurt and couldn’t move. People would make too big of a deal out of the win. Stephens was the best U.S. hope, and this was a step forward, but there were more steps to climb.

Yet a column on ESPN.com back then said, “She may not be ready to be favored to win a Slam, but that doesn’t mean she’s not ready to win one. . .Yes, she’s that good.”

Remember: She had never won any tournaments.

Never.

A year later, in ESPN the Magazine, the same writer — Howard Bryant, a respected journalist — wrote about Stephens again: “A year ago, the `It’ hype machine was anointing its newest member.” He said the goal of reaching greatness is “made even more difficult by the desire on the part of the public, the media and the entourage to anoint.” And, “being declared `It’ is at best a cruel trap. It’s to be treated like a legend without actually being one, then to be rebuked severely when expecations are not met.”

Look, the same guy cannot write those two things, anointing her with one hand and slapping down and blaming the anointers with the other. ” There is no greater force in the “It” hype machine in tennis than ESPN, the network that owns the sport of tennis (and college football) and profits from the hype.

But usually, there is some sort of arrival before the overkill.

Stephens was fresh, young, new, attractive, marketable. She was used, but she went along with it. Now she has been exposed, which was inevitable.

So the narrative-makers in tennis have created a new one about Stephens: She has not lived up to something that her critics created in the first place. John McEnroe, still the voice of American tennis because of his spot on ESPN, said he heard that Stephens has become a prima donna and won’t listen to coaches. That, the theory goes, is why she has changed several times.

It’s hard to know what she’s searching for. But on the women’s tour, with few exceptions — Serena, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka – there are 50-75 women who have the same style and play to the same level.

They blast away, and whichever player gets more shots to land on the court, wins. There are just the most subtle, tiny differences that decide which players win a little more often than others. Ana Ivanovic is No. 5 because she is the same as everyone else only with a top return of serve. Simona Halep is No. 3 because she is everyone else only a little more fit and athletic.

When Ivanovic lost in the first round, the talk was about the big upset. But really, if Ivanovic’ return isn’t on, she is no better than the 50th best player.

So let’s get back to Stephens. She is the same as everyone else. And in looking for that one tiny edge that could give her wins? She doesn’t have one. Her weak serve and lack of fire aren’t changing. She is going back to her old coach, Nick Saviano, and maybe he can find something. I don’t see why she can’t slap her serve.

But it looks like the narrative writers have had enough of her, other than to talk about her collapse, which doesn’t exist.

She was a top prospect and now is a 21-year old lost in the pack and nothing more. “We” should have known better.

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

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