Tag Archives: Sloane Stephens

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.

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WIMBLEDON: Sloane Stephens Loses in 1st Round. Hype was Wrong, Unfair

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Sloane Stephens isn’t living up to expectations. First there was the loss to Simona Halep in the battle of Generation We-Got-Next at the French Open, and on Monday she lost to Maria Kirilenko 6-2, 7-6 (8-6) in the first round at Wimbledon.

Just 17 months ago, she beat Serena Williams at the Australian Open. Now, while doing well in several majors, she has never even won a pro tournament at any level.

What is wrong with Sloane Stephens? There are things for sure, things that make me wonder if she can be a major champion. But she’s still in the development stages of her career. And the narrative about her shortcomings is revolving around a timetable that was based on expectations that should never have been put on her in the first place.

The point is this: She is not living up to the hype and expectations, but it was the hype and expectations that were wrong.

Here is an example. Earlier this year, a writer at ESPN.com wrote about Stephens’ failure to live up to her hype, yet also ripped the “hype machine” over and over. The article said the goal of reaching greatness is made difficult by the public’s and media’s desire “to anoint.”

All great points, except for one thing: When Stephens had beaten Williams in Melbourne, that same writer wrote that “Sloane Stephens is ready” and “She may not be ready yet to be favored to win a slam, but that doesn’t mean she’s not ready to win one.”

No, she wasn’t ready. She still isn’t. We don’t know if she ever will be. I’ll get into that in a minute. But whose hype was she failing to live up to, anyway?

Even at the time, and shortly after, I warned people not to make too big a deal out of that win over Williams, as Williams’ back was so hurt so bad she could barely move. Stephens’ arrow was pointing up, though.

Now, she has flown too high on borrowed wings, to steal a phrase. And the media desperation to always find something new, something fast, something first, has only threatened her career. We overhype these kids, and they aren’t ready for it. Adults aren’t ready for it, either, by the way.

But Donald Young and his parents did not need to hear, when he was a little kid, that John McEnroe thought he’d be the next, well, John McEnroe. It threw off everything and it has taken Young a decade to get his head on right.

Michelle Wie won golf’s U.S. Open Sunday, and is one of the most

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WIMBLEDON: Retaliation for Crip Walk? Lisicki Gets Honors over Serena Williams

Sabine Lisicki reached the Wimbledon final last year. Officially, that’s why she was selected to play the opening women’s singles match Tuesday at the All England Club.

I wish I believed that’s the main reason they chose her. It’s only suspicion, based on years of anecdotal evidence, that tells me Lisicki was picked partly because of last year, but partly because she is blonde. She is white. She is pretty.

And also because of this: She did not do the Crip Walk on Centre Court.

Is this payback against Serena Williams for her celebratory dance after crushing Maria Sharapova for the Olympic gold medal at Wimbledon in 2012? After all these years, Wimbledon and the Williams sisters still are not a comfortable fit. Even if this snub is just accidental, Wimbledon officials are proving yet again to be too stubborn to move up a few generations and too oblivious to note how it looks. And how it hurts tennis.

Whatever it is, Williams hasn’t complained. The first match at Wimbledon traditionally goes to the defending champ. It’s just an honorary thing, but the little things still carry big messages. The problem is, last year’s champ, Marion Bartoli, has retired. So officials just had to pick someone, like the previous year’s winner (Williams), the No. 1 ranked player (also Williams) or, yes, the loser from last year’s final (Lisicki).

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Sabine Lisicki

They could have put anyone in that match, really. The inspired choice would have been Venus Williams. She is the queen of Wimbledon, but she’s getting old and has physical issues and isn’t going to win another title. What a great chance to honor her one more time. And if not Venus, then Serena, who also has meant so much to the place and the sport. Frankly, it would have sent a good message about Wimbledon, too.

Instead, they picked the young, blonde and white.

Race is always the undeniable undercurrent with the Williams sisters and tennis. It feels as if sexism is involved, too, as blonde gets too much emphasis. A few years ago, Gisela Dulko and Maria Kirilenko were inexplicably put on Centre Court one7 day. Eventually, TV rights holder BBC explained it, saying that appearance on TV is a factor in these decisions.

But with this latest decision, it feels more like continued bickering between Williams and Wimbledon.

“I can’t figure it out yet,” Williams said. “Maybe one day I’ll figure it out.”

No, she didn’t say that on Friday, when Lisicki was given the match. She said it in 2011, after she and Venus were both moved to an outer court, Court 2, on the same day. A year earlier, the Queen of England was coming to Wimbledon for the first time in 33 years. Williams was excited, and talked openly and publicly about how bad her curtsy was. She said she’d been practicing it, and she demonstrated. She wanted to play in front of the Queen. Next thing you knew, on the day of the Queen’s appearance, Serena was put out on Court 2. Centre Court had Brit Andy Murray, No. 1 Rafael Nadal, and also, Caroline Wozniacki, who was. . . Young, blonde and white.

That still seems to be what Wimbledon thinks tennis looks like. It is the most beautiful tennis venue, and feels as if it’s a tennis museum. They still prefer players to wear all white. And while Wimbledon doggedly preserves the old time feeling of tennis, it doesn’t seem to grasp that without taking action, that also preserves an ugly underbelly of the sport’s history. Continue reading


FRENCH OPEN: Old Lady Sharapova, Erases Generation, Becomes Queen of Clay

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In the end, this French Open will be remembered for the Old Lady, I guess. If that’s what we can call Maria Sharapova. She’s just 27, but she single-handedly wiped out a moment that was all about the emergence of Generation Next.

When Serena Williams and Li Na lost early, the tournament was suddenly defined by Simona Halep, Eugenie Bouchard, Garbine Muguruza and Sloane Stephens. It wasn’t the best moment for marketers and TV networks, but women’s tennis needs a refresh. And all four of those young women are compelling and thrilling.

They feel like the right ones. It turned out, Stephens wasn’t ready, isn’t at that level. And then, the marketing dream, Sharapova, wrecked the whole thing, beating Serena-killer Muguruza in the quarters, then Bouchard in the semis, and then Halep 6-4, 6-7 (7-5), 6-4 in the final.

There were just too many backward things going on. Sharapova cannot exactly wreck a moment in a sport with so few faces the general sports public wants to see. She cannot possibly be seen as fearless at the same time that she’s afraid to hit her serve. And more importantly: Sharapova, who once described herself on clay as a cow on ice, is now. . .

The best claycourt player on tour. That’s two French Open titles in the past three years for her, and three finals in a row.

We can celebrate Sharapova’s incredible stick-to-itiveness, as always. But she won this match, this tournament because of her years of experience. That was her advantage.

You can see it as veteran street knowledge, so to speak, or possibly just as gamesmanship. Either way, the woman who has been here a million times knew how to get through this match, and the one here for the first time – first of many – did not.

Sharapova was in an all-out stall. Halep likes to rush, and Sharapova knew how to throw her off. Setting and re-setting before her first serve, and then doing it all again before the second. And all those tosses on her serve that she caught and said, “Sorry’’ as if they were just bad tosses?

I’m not buying. It’s true she has struggled with her toss over the years, but so many of those seemed intentional. Toss and catch. . .and. . .toss. . .again. That was more stalling to get Halep out of her rhythm and give her a whole lot of time to think about what it was she was trying to do. If that was enough time for nervousness to creep into a newcomer’s brain, which has never had to deal with these thoughts before?

Well, so be it.

Halep will be back. We’ve seen some pretend stars emerge, or place-setters the past year or two while Williams starts to lose a little more often. Not sure what happened to Sabine Lisicki. Marion Bartoli was never going to be the real deal, even after she won Wimbledon.

Halep is the next longterm star for tennis. Bouchard is right behind her. Muguruza is not as sure of a thing, but odds are with her. Stephens is going to have to learn to fight, and determine whether there is the needed killer inside of her.

The amazing thing about Sharapova is that she’s doing it on clay. We figured when she emerged as a teenager at Wimbledon, crushing the ball, that the fast courts would be best for her. Now, Roland Garros is her place.

A learning curve? That would be a nice thing to point to. Really, she just seems to be moving better and holding her nerve.

Except on her serve. It’s amazing how she can just blank out flaws, just partition them out of her brain while she keeps fighting. Can’t serve? OK, I’ll be ruthless at all non-serving moments.

She was nervous against Bouchard. You could see it. Bouchard is tall, ruthless, powerful and blonde, and it was almost as if she was a replacement.

Yet despite nerves, despite seeing your replacement, despite a bad serve and iffy moves, Sharapova somehow found a way to be mentally relentless.

The only mental block she hasn’t overcome is Williams. So Sharapova, with five majors, will not go down as the best player ever. I don’t think she’s going to figure that one out.

But if a cow on ice can figure out how to become the Queen of Clay, I wouldn’t bet against her, either.


Maui Vacation Refreshing. Davis Cup, Fed Cup Stale

This is where I live, in Chicagoland: 20140217_165553-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this is where I went for a while, to Maui: 20140227_182652

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t tell you how bad I feel that this is what I missed:

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Yes, Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens, the two best American women, representing the U.S. in Federation Cup play against Italy. You can see it clearly right there in the ad.

And it wasn’t just that, but also the whole national team season of Fed Cup and Davis Cup. I missed Switzerland against Serbia in Davis Cup, too. Imagine that: Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic.

I missed it all.

OK, so tennis fans already know what I actually missed:

Nothing.

It was just after the Australian Open, and Djokovic pulled out. He was criticized, all but called a traitor, so Serbia lost. Williams and Stephens pulled out, too, so the U.S. lost to Italy’s best. No, that isn’t right. A bunch of backup Americans lost to a bunch of the Italian backups’ backups.

And what did that prove exactly?

Meanwhile, fans had already bought tickets based on the marketing of Serena and Sloane. And fans can’t just pull out. Their money was locked in on a bait-and-switch. I’ve written before that tennis fans need a Bill of Rights, but I’ll get back to that some other time.

Here’s the thing: I don’t blame Williams, Stephens or Djokovic for pulling out. Why on earth would anyone play these things anymore?

The International Tennis Federation has rendered Davis Cup almost entirely irrelevant because it is so out of touch with the times. I’m sorry, but Bill Tilden vs. the Four Musketeers has come and gone.

Tennis is already an international head-to-head event every week all year long. The only thing the ITF has going as a carrot to lure top players to Davis Cup now is that it can guilt them into doing it.

This is just such an easy fix. Tennis can turn these things into two-week World Cup events. Bring all the countries together in one session in one place, play matches two out of three sets, and turn it into a tournament.

I’ve railed on this before, and an ITF official told me it wouldn’t work because there are countries whose entire tennis federation budget comes from low-level Davis Cup ties. Even Argentina, I was told, got its entire puny $2 million a year budget that way.

Fine. Then let the lower levels play things the way they are now in an attempt to qualify for the World Cup of Tennis. There has to be some way to make this interesting in a modern era. If you’re trying to grow the game, and add fans, you can’t do it with such a complicated event.

Who wants to follow a season that runs one week now, one week in a few months, one week a few months after that, with losers splintering off into multi-tiered loser brackets along the way?

No one has that kind of an attention span anymore.

But if you put the top countries together in a World Cup, then you can cut out two weeks from top players’ schedules. Twice that, actually, when you consider all the travel and practice time that would be saved.

Players are always complaining about the season being too long. And it is grueling. With a World Cup of Tennis, you shorten the season and more importantly:

You have an event that fans could really get behind. It would be seen as another major. Players could rest with the extra time off, and would have to give up only two weeks a year for Davis Cup. They’d do it. And general sports fans could understand it.

Which would make advertisers happy. Which would make TV happy.

Even better, tennis could actually use some of the time saved to add something it really needs.

A major in Asia.

But whatever. The ITF thinks it knows better. And that’s why we got matches such as Roger Federer vs. some guy named Ilija Bozoljac and Stan Wawrinka vs. Dusan Lajovic to determine whether Switzerland or Serbia is better at tennis.

Really?

Maybe Serena and Sloane will be back in April when the U.S. plays France in a World Group playoff – loser’s bracket — with the purpose only of being in the winner’s bracket in 2015?

Don’t count on it. I’m thinking Williams is more likely to be in Maui.


WIMBLEDON: Sloane Stephens Suffers Cruel Learning Curve; Americans Don’t Survive to July 4

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REPORTING FROM THE ALL ENGLAND CLUB IN WIMBLEDON

LONDON

The learning curve is painful and cruel, and you can’t avoid it. It’s as if you’re driving down the road and your car automatically searches out and finds every last bump and pothole, even cliff.

For Sloane Stephens, American tennis hopeful, the problem is that you don’t know for sure which bumps you’ll eventually figure out how to clear easily and which ones you never will. Which ones will you learn from and which ones will define you.

Stephens ran off the cliff Tuesday at Wimbledon. She was playing brilliantly and beautifully, and then she was duped for the second time in three majors by someone pulling a veteran’s dirty trick on her. She lost 6-4, 7-5 to Marion Bartoli in the quarterfinals.

“I am disappointed in myself because I know I probably could have given a little bit more,” Stephens said. “You have to keep learning from it and keep moving forward.”

If you thought this tournament was a torch-passing from Serena Williams to Stephens, then take a deep breath and sit down for a minute.

Please read the rest of the column here


WIMBLEDON: One Rivalry Can Spark Women’s Tennis in the U.S.

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Sloane Stephens and Serena Williams

REPORTING FROM THE ALL ENGLAND CLUB IN WIMBLEDON

LONDON 

I’m starting to dream of a Serena-Sloane Wimbledon final. Can you imagine? The new rivalry of tennis?

After they both went along with, and then later debunked, the whole feelgood story about their mentor-student relationship?

After Sloane Stephens beat Serena Williams at the Australian Open? After Serena took a shot at Sloane, theoretically, on Twitter? After Sloane called Serena a phony? This could be great. It could revive women’s tennis and spark it in the US.

Please read the rest of the column here