Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Inner Game of Sloane Stephens

It is my contention as a Sloane Stephens fan that, since the 2013 Australian Open, Stephens played far too often with with fear.

My favorite tennis book (aside from Monica Seles' Game On, of course) is The Inner Game of Tennis, in which Tim Galloway talks about how letting go of self-judgment is central to getting the best performance out of yourself on the tennis court. Self-judgment stems primarily from the fear of what other people are thinking about you. Whether you're a good person. How you look. How great of a player you really are. Whether you're worthy of their esteem/love/like. It's an insidious process that affects all parts of our lives, usually negatively. But nowhere else on the planet is it as crystalized as when playing tennis in front of an audience. And it's intensified in the age of social media.

In her wonderful press conference following her Citi Open semifinal win over Sam Stosur - securing her first final after six unsuccessful tries - a relaxed Stephens made a comment that, to me, seemed awfully revealing, even if she said it in a sarcastic tone:

"Now people can stop talking about me, so that's one good thing."

Stephens has had a very solid career since that magical Melbourne moment in 2013, when she upset a hobbled-but-game Serena Williams to advance to the Australian Open semifinals. A Wimbledon quarterfinal, several additional fourth round runs at majors, some great come-from-behind victories, and a host of wins over Top 30 players. Over $3 million in prize money. Plenty of endorsements.

Sloane Stephens and then-coach David Nainkin during the
2013 New Haven Open
But she was also notorious for her poor on-court body language during some "bad" losses, to players she should "easily" have beaten, and it gave her a reputation for just not caring. But I never saw closed-off Sloane as a manifestation of her not caring. I saw it as her caring too much -- but about the wrong things. Not about how she was playing, but about how others perceived her playing.

Keep in mind: I don't know Sloane Stephens. I have never met her or interviewed her, and even if I did, how presumptuous is it to claim to know another's mind? I'm just giving my impressions based on years of fandom and match watching.

After Melbourne 2013, Stephens of course got the barrage of hype (from media, from fans - there's really not as much of a distinction these days as some suggest - and from the WTA), which hurt not because she got arrogant but because she now had massive expectations to live up to, and those expectations were in her head in the form of judgments every time she stepped on court. It was no longer that she was a player with potential - it was that she was a player who had not fulfilled her potential. That designation weighs much heavier.

In addition to the expectations, she then had several negative interactions (missteps?) with the media, a conflict with Serena Williams (emnifying her forever with parts of Serena's fanbase), and the inevitable shitty social media comments. She became a more guarded player, less the free-flowing athlete who wowed me the one time I saw her play in person, at the 2012 US Open. "Why am I even out here?" she acknowledged asking herself at times. Many tennis watchers wondered the same thing.

But something had clearly changed this year, and much credit has to go to her - along with her team - for making those changes. She's won far more than she lost since a slow start in Australia, and in fact hasn't lost to any players who weren't at least one-time grand slam finalists since a two-set defeat to Mona Barthel in April. And with few exceptions, she's been engaged even when down.

A more relaxed, confident Stephens at Wimbledon 2015,
via @sloanestephens on Twitter

Again, as she said in her post-semifinal press conference:

Q: Obviously you have a big match tomorrow. There's a lot of tennis left to be played this year. Has your idea of success shifted at all - has it transformed during your career?
 A: I think what I ... for me ... what's best for me ... I was kind of always was kind of like, "What does this person think I should be doing" or, "What does the next person think I should be doing" and once I kind of just settled and was like, "What do I need to be doing?' and, "How is this going to make me feel?" ... once I re-focused on that I think things have gotten a lot easier for me, and I've kind of just settled in, and I'm happy about that.

From a fan perspective -- and make no mistake, Sloane Stephens is my favorite player -- I was far more emotional after her semifinal win than after her title. I teared up big-time. And I think I know why: I too was caught up in others' judgments of her as a player and person. I got into arguments online in defense of her and felt personally insulted when others attacked her or mentioned her lack of having reached a final. As if by being her fan, I was somehow less worthy, because I was supporting this person whom others mocked.

And then, seemingly like Sloane, I let it all go on Saturday, and wasn't even nervous for her on Sunday. Stephens played with focused intensity, great defense and offense, and afterward, she looked like she didn't have a care in the world. She didn't have an "I told you so" attitude. She seemed free of judgment.

Just very, very happy.

Postscript: None of the above is affected by her comedown loss to Dominika Cibulkova yesterday in Toronto and the legendary racquet smash that accompanied it. Hey, everyone loses. At least she went down swinging!


  1. Well done - I covered the Citi Open too, but I missed that press conference, after I attend the first one she did. Didn't find it particularly engaging, but that may have something to do with being less concerned with what others want to hear.

  2. The Inner Game of Tennis is an excellent book. I keep it in my tennis bag and reread it whenever I'm in the doldrums about my tennis game. It has really helped me.

  3. The Inner Game of Tennis is an excellent book. I keep it in my tennis bag and reread it whenever I'm in the doldrums about my tennis game. It has really helped me.