written by Benjamin Snyder
With the conclusion of the Australian Open, the year’s first major tennis tournament, the women’s event anointed Belarusian Victoria Azarenka once again as its champion for the second time in two years. But, arguably even more exciting for tennis fans (Azarenka was booed throughout her Melbourne campaign), was teenager Sloane Stephens’ run to the semifinals and her subsequent ascent to the Top 20.
Hailed for years as a potential American future talent and for her vibrant presence in press conferences, Stephens made headlines at the start of the season for facing 15-time major champion Serena Williams in the Brisbane quarterfinals. Although she lost 6-4, 6-3, the match proved to be Serena’s toughest test during her title-winning performance over the course of the week.
In the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, however, Stephens, the daughter of deceased NFL athlete John Stephens, notched the biggest upset of her young career by taking out an injured Serena in three dramatic sets. Poised under pressure, Stephens made just her third semifinal appearance at a Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) event, with her first two having come at Strasbourg and Washington DC last year.
While a celebration among the tennis community and for black athletes, which has been dominated by Serena and elder sister Venus on the women’s tour in recent years, the media coverage of Sloane and Serena’s relationship proves to be overstated upon further analysis.
But, as eloquently explained – and even with textual support — in an article for Deadspin.com, the phenomenon is probably more fiction than fact. Although Sloane did admit to having a poster of Serena hanging up in her room in the past, there has been no prominent source available to conclude that she considered the Williams’ sister her “hero,” as the same Washington Times article blatantly suggests in a sensationalized opening paragraph.
Moreover, Serena’s own comments on the subject prove to diametrically oppose the media’s exaggerated claims about Stephens’ perceived idol worship. As quoted by the Independent ahead of their Australian Open match, Serena told reporters about her role as a ‘mentor’ to Stephens: “I don’t know, I would need a better definition of the word ‘mentor.’ I just feel like being the older one, maybe some of the younger players look up to me. It’s interesting. It’s hard to be a real mentor when you’re still in competition, so I think it’s a little bit of everything.”
As Serena later succinctly stated about the relationship with her younger competitor as the interview continued, “No. I feel no responsibility [for Stephens]. I doubt she has any expectations of me to be responsible for anything. Maybe she does. I don’t know.”
Stephens’ own comments transformed Serena from “idol” to human after a fourth-round win in Melbourne. She told reporters about their quarterfinal meeting, “You’re still playing a regular person across the net. You’ve just got to go out and play.” Nothing supernatural about it (although she did once refer to Williams as a “tennis god,” but not as her “tennis god.”)
Instead, Stephens used one word to characterize the state of their relationship: “Normal.” That more mundane language should probably take place of the hyperbole reporters currently use to grossly overstate the relationship between the two black athletes, basically because they’re both black.
Serena, too, had comments about her first sighting of Sloane four years ago, which reveals nothing groundbreaking. “I saw her in the locker room. She was another black girl. I was like: ‘Hey!’”
From “hey!” to hero? Reporters, something’s amiss here, although one thing seems fairly certain: Stephens is destined for continued success on tennis’ biggest stages — Serena worshipper, or not.
Benjamin Snyder is a sports contributor to The Burton Wire. You can follow Benjamin Snyder on Twitter @WriterSnyder.