When asked about reaching her first Grand Slam semifinal, the new future face of tennis, Sloane Stephens, said with that beautiful smile, "Whoa, it wasn't as hard as I thought."
The new future face of tennis. Yes, that, among other things, is who Stephens has become over the past two weeks. Her run through the Australian Open has forced the media to dub her as not just tennis' future face, but as tennis' great American hope and next/new/torchbearer/replacement of Serena Williams.
(And the race/color aspect of this cannot be ignored. A part of the fascination with Sloane and the rush to replace Serena with her is partially because of the racial connection they share and the fact that they are rarities in the sport. For the damage the pressure of something like that can do to a young African-American tennis player, I have only two words: Donald Young.)
America: Slow your roll.
The last thing Stephens needs is the outside pressure that historically has played a role in ruining a career before it even gets a true chance to start. The desire to find a savior for American tennis should not come at one player's expense. If we really care about the future of Sloane Stephens, then we need to change the recent direction of her narrative.
But we can't, can we? It's not in us to do something like that. Because when it comes to athletics -- specifically in sports, where there's an absurd need to discover or manufacture the next great icon and identify the next level of greatness -- we all have a tendency to put (young) athletes into contexts where they have yet to belong. And in tennis, we got it bad.
In tennis there's often a very fine line between the promise of a player's future and a player having a historic run during a tournament. Especially when it happens at a Grand Slam. When players go on runs like Stephens' in Australia, we lose perspective; we think what we are seeing from them in that moment is going to be the prequel to what we are about to see on an every-tournament basis. Especially when it happens during a Grand Slam.
In 1978 it was Virginia Ruzici, who after she won the French Open never got past the quarterfinal in any other Slam; in 1997, 19-year-old Iva Majoli won the French Open but never lived up to the expectations placed on her at the time. Same with Anastasia Myskina in 2004 and Ana Ivanovic in 2008, and neither ever seemed to recover. Myskina never made it past a quarterfinal in any other Slam and hasn't played since 2007. Ivanovic is chasing her next title and is ranked No. 13 in the world.
In 2011 it was Petra Kvitova. She was 21 and had already been on the tour for five years when she won Wimbledon. Because she was Czech, she was instantly dubbed the "next" Martina Navratilova. Not that she hasn't played well since (last year she did reach the semis of the Australian and the French Opens), but she has fallen from being ranked No. 2 in the world to her current No. 8.
That's not ascension.
Just three years ago tennis thought it had found another darling, the new "next." During the 2009 U.S. Open, Melanie Oudin did exactly what Stephens just did in Australia: came out of nowhere and shook up the world. The 17-year-old wild card took out Maria Sharapova (and Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova) during an improbable run to the Open quarterfinals. She got feature stories written about her in The New York Times and an appearance on "The Tonight Show." The world wasn't just an oyster to her; it had become a pearl Tiffany bracelet.
Seventeen months ago Oudin returned to the U.S. Open with a 9-28 record for 2011, ranked 120 in the world (she finished 2011 ranked 139). Today she's scrambling to just qualify for Slams, sometimes relying on exemptions and losing early. Currently, Oudin's WTA singles ranking is 84 in the world.
I write all of this only to say that the game doesn't discriminate, especially when it comes to fresh, young, untested talent that shows us a glimpse of what could be. The game knows we are fiends for what's new; the game knows we are forever and always in search of the new. What we tend to do is forget the role we play in providing prey for the game to prey on.
Stephens could be the next great fill-in-the-blank, but we shouldn't make her the game's next victim. With all of the cool, calm, composure, control, discipline and poise she showed in the big moments in Melbourne, it's easy to imagine her playing in the semis in majors for years to come.
We too can't be victims.
Because just as we watched her upset the No. 3 seed in Serena and force the No. 1 seed (Victoria Azarenka) to indecorously use a 10-minute injury timeout -- which some experts argued was merely to compose herself and keep from choking away the second set -- we must remind ourselves for the sake of Stephens' career that this was the first time she had ever been seeded in a major. We must remember that she still was the 29th seed, that she caught Serena at the perfect time (Williams was playing on a severely bad ankle, she had lost a doubles match the day before in which she tweaked the ankle, her back locked up on her for eight games in the match against Stephens, etc.). And she did have 19 unforced errors in that 6-1 first-set loss to Azarenka.
We need the reality check more than she does.
There's a difference between a match or tournament that makes people aware of who you are, a match or tournament that says you've arrived and a match or tournament that says you are the next great hope for a sport. That you are the answer to a sport's prayer.
We can't assist in making Sloane Stephens tennis' next unanswered prayer. She deserves better than that. We should learn from our past.
A little over three and a half years ago, Caroline Wozniacki was where Stephens is now. The up, coming and here-to-stay star. That promising young tennis phenom who grabbed hold of the world of sports and held it captive for as long as she could. The new future face. I'm not saying that Wozniacki has not become a great player or is no longer the face of the women's game, but there's an incompleteness to her career that you wouldn't wish on anyone.
We (and the WTA, which vaulted her in 2010 to No. 1, which she held for over a year without ever winning a major, something she still has yet to do) fell in love too soon, put too much pressure on her too soon, expected too much of her too soon.
And we are already looking for the next her. Please don't let it be Sloane.