By Jane Voigt
Daniel Island, April 2, 2014 — Enough with the April Fools that weren’t. Serena Williams lost last night at Family Circle Cup, after a year of having lost 5 matches, to a kid ranked No. 78, plus the doubles wildcard team of Jelena Jankovic and Andrea Petkovic drew the fun-crowd of the day. Maybe they should put doubles on Billie Jean King court?
This morning though, bright and early … 10 a.m., the sun shone on Sloane Stephens on Billie Jean King, which is named for the woman to which all women player’s are indebted, or should be.
The American No. 5 seed had a tough teen on her hands — the highest ranked one at No. 35, Elina Svitolina. With Sloane’s outrageous loss to Caroline Wozniacki in Miami, expectations were, for some, pointed toward another failure. In the All-Access Hour on Monday, Sloane was quite clear. She just wanted to have fun.
Today, she reiterated her stand, “Like I said. I’m 21 now. If I play ten more years of tennis, until I’m 31, that’s a lot of tennis to be played. I could win the next Grand Slam or I could win one in six years and that would still be — you know … if I had pretty decent results and I was pretty consistent, I think that would still be pretty good.”
Point is, she is not consistent. And consistency is the only asset that matters in the long-run.
Svitolina broke Stephens three times in the first set. At 1-5 she woke up. She had threaded the needle down the line with a snappy backhand, which drove fans to rise up and cheer. Please, oh please Sloane, keep it up. Make us happy. We want you to win.
“I mean I was down, like it’s hard to fight back from 5-1 in the first set or whatever, and I did good to get it back, but obviously it’s alway tough when the person has such momentum. She was playing well. I was lucky to get some of those points and stuff. But I thought for the situation that I was in, that I’d gotten myself into, I did pretty good to try and fight back.”
Svitolina made no mistakes serving for the set, again. She was ravenous, having her first attempt washed away by a spirited spike from Sloane.
The first set was Svitolina’s, 6-4. (Elina is pictured at right during the 2013 U. S. Open. Photo credit tennisclix.com)
Is it just youth? The demands of the WTA Tour? Does natural talent trump the will to win. Maybe these young players need both? Of course they do. Are we too anxious to see more from them. Not to fail. An impossible expectation.
“Well, it’s always tough, especially when you play so many matches,” Agnieszka Radwanska told the media after her tough loss to Dominika Cibulkova in Miami. At 25 she has risen to No. 3 in world with a game and talent that defies the normal baseline bashing. “I’m happy I can play really consistent tennis and be in really high level, top 5, top 10, for a couple years now. You know, this is really hard work, especially doing it so long. I work hard on that.”
Down a set, fans might have thought Sloane played better from behind. She clobbered the ball deep and deeper into Svitolina’s court.
“I never try to get down on purpose and then try and come back,” Sloane explained. “But, I definitely always want to win. It’s just unfortunate today. I got down like just too many breaks. It just wasn’t there for me today.”
Stephens attitude on court and her results, which are up and down, make us doubt her. Her sincerity. Her ambition with tennis. Maybe she wants us to think that. It’s her way of getting us — press, fans, coaches — off her back. She has ten more years, she said, as if to push us on to the back burner. Just simmer. I got this covered.
Does she owe Americans anything? We clamor for more top ten tennis players from the states. Men. Women.
“No. I feel like the No. 1 player in the world on the women’s side is Serena Williams,” she began. “She’s one of the greatest players to ever play our game and she’s American. She’s still playing. I don’t feel pressure. If the pressure is on anyone it’s on her. I mean she’s dominating. What are they looking for?”
On-court presence differs from one player to the next. Stephens is not demonstrative, although she did squeak out a couple ‘come ons’ today. Fans took note. They cheered.
Basically, fans want to be entertained. They want their nation to shine. To win. It’s the American way. Sloane does not owe them anything, really. She is talented, having a wicked fast racquet-head speed and natural athleticism that will carry her along. Her father played for the New England Patriots, but died in 2009. Having Paul Annacone in Sloane’s corner should encourage her to incorporate more tactics, to develop at a rate within her grasp.
“I was waiting for this win a long time,” Svitolina said. “I was playing the matches like against Ivanovic, that was a close match for me, and against Radwanska, also was a tough one in Miami.”
Belief in her game and herself have elevated the Ukranian’s game. Last time these two met, Sloane won. So now they are 1-1 head-to-head. A budding rivalry perhaps with this 64 64 victory.
“I started to believe more in myself. That I can compete with players like this, top level. Top 20 and Top 10. This is the key. That I believe more in myself and I play more solid from the baseline. Coming up from the juniors you need to get confidence to win these kind of players that are the top level.”
At 19, Svitolina owns four wins over top-25 players, the most recent against Eugenie Bouchard in Miami, who is seeded No. 6 this week in Charleston. Svitolina improved more than 100 places from 2012 to the end of 2013, and broke into the top 50 last July.
Sloane Stephens is not going away, nor are the other youngsters pressing the limits of their games and careers.
Maybe Stephens is right. Maybe our expectations are off. That we should back away and let her pave her course. Who knows what lurks in her life, her young life. One thing for sure, Paul Annacone would not have agreed to coach Sloane Stephens if he had not seen something worthwhile.