AMIDST UNTOLD LOSS, STEPHENS REDISCOVERING INNER FIRE

AMIDST UNTOLD LOSS, STEPHENS REDISCOVERING INNER FIRE

’16 CHAMPION RIDES WIN STREAK INTO CHARLESTON OPEN QUARTERFINALS

We forget sometimes that professional athletes aren’t immune to the ups and downs of everyday life.

In between the touchdowns and home runs, the three-pointers and three-set comebacks, they experience those peaks and valleys along with the rest of us. Yet we still expect them to go out and do their job, to win, no matter the circumstances. Even in a year like the one we’ve just been through.

All the live-score apps showed us was that Sloane Stephens was having a slow start to 2021, not much to show for her trip Down Under outside of three consecutive opening-round losses. But few knew the toll that COVID-19 had taken on the 28-year-old American and her family. First, she lost an aunt; then, within a matter of weeks, both her grandmother and grandfather. She even tested positive for the coronavirus herself. Smacking a tennis ball suddenly didn’t feel like the be-all and end-all.

“Everyone has taken the pandemic differently,” said Stephens, into the quarterfinals of the Volvo Car Open for a third time. “Their approach, their expectations are very different. For myself, personally, I had COVID, I lost three people that were very close to me. I’m in Australia and I literally had to go to my grandparents’ funeral on Zoom. I just was not ready to play. The pressure of contracts and the expectation of being out there and just playing, it wasn’t the right time for me. I had a lot going on.”

Stephens has spoken at length about rediscovering happiness on the court during her run to the elite eight, which included a 6-4, 6-4 unseating of her longtime friend and defending champion Madison Keys, a rematch of the 2017 US Open final. She says that, in the end, it doesn’t necessarily come down to wins and losses.

“It’s more of how I feel when I’m playing and my competitiveness and me wanting to be out there. When I’m literally talking to grief counselors and psychologists and all these people all the time because I’m a mess, that doesn’t really have anything to do with my tennis: It’s more just that I’ve gone through a lot,” she confided. “To just have the expectation of, ‘Oh, I’m going to get out there and kill it,’ it’s not going to happen. So being happy on the court and being able to train and get back to what I was doing before to enable myself to have good results, is what I really had to kind of realize. In order to have good results, you have to practice, you have to get out there, you have to have the time. You can’t be crying. Life happens, you know? I think that kind of letting life settle and dealing with it and then trying to play tennis is the best way to go.”

Stephens has been accompanied this week in Charleston by Darian King, an ATP Tour pro who’s filling in as both sounding board and practice partner while Stephens is between full-time coaches. She has also been working temporarily with Diego Moyano in Florida since ending her player-coach relationship with Kamau Murray after a second stint.

“We’ve parted ways,” said Stephens of Murray, who coached her to that US Open title in 2017. “I just needed to get down and train and hear a different voice, just really focus on my tennis and zero in. No matter what that is, Diego’s just been like, ‘We’re going to put our heads down and we’re going to work.’ I feel like I really needed that. There’s a lot of emotional things that come with losing someone and people being close to you and all of that stuff, and I think Kamau was so good for me with that. We spent two weeks in quarantine together and I love him to death. When my grandma passed and I called him — he was one of the first people I called — we were both on the phone crying together. As a person, as a friend, being on the road with someone like that, Kamau is one of my closest friends. I think for me, I feel like I really needed to separate my emotional and my tennis, so I could really hunker down and play and not think about anything else. I think separating the two has been helpful for me.”

On Friday, Stephens will take the Althea Gibson Club Court for a first-time matchup with 15th seed Veronika Kudermetova of Russia. A trip to the semifinals will be on the line, of course, but Stephens will be fighting for so much more than that.

Sloane Stephens