MELBOURNE, Australia — This was Sloane Stephens four months ago: standing center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York as the newly crowned US Open champion with a wide smile, a big check ($3.7 million — by far the biggest of her career) and an amazing story of becoming the lowest-ranked player to win that event.
And this was Stephens on Saturday morning in Australia as she sat before the media just days before her opening-round match against Zhang Shuai of China on Tuesday: solemn, defensive and wound way, way too tight.
Winning your first title — whether it’s the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals or a tennis Grand Slam — is a grueling process.
Some use that journey as a stepping stone to sustained greatness.
Others find remaining at that high level of greatness to be more challenging.
In 2017, Stephens went from being ranked No. 934 in the world to US Open champion in just over a month.
And since that amazing moment? Stephens hasn’t won a singles match, including losses to the likes of Aryna Sabalenka (No. 78 in the WTA rankings at the time of their November match in the Fed Cup), Aliaksandra Sasnovich (No. 87 going into their Fed Cup match) and most recently Camila Giorgi (No. 100 at the time of their match in Sydney last week).
Maybe that’s why ESPN analyst Chris Evert threw a little shade at Stephens during a conference call last week when she was told the 24-year-old US Open champion hadn’t won a match since New York.
“I question whether she has a burning desire to win more Grand Slams or to be No. 1 in the world,” Evert said. “I don’t see that burning desire as much as I see it with other players. I’m sure that’s just my opinion; maybe I’m wrong.”
We know Evert has been wrong before when she has taken this journey. Who can forget her “open letter” to Serena Williams back in 2006 when she questioned the commitment of arguably the best player in the history of women’s tennis. “I wonder whether 20 years from now,” Evert wrote, “you might reflect on your career and regret not putting 100 percent of yourself into tennis.”
But here’s the difference: At the time, Williams had seven Grand Slam titles under her belt.
Last year was the first time Stephens had appeared in a Grand Slam final.
Asked how her life had changed since winning the US Open, Stephens initially claimed “it hadn’t changed that much because I don’t like to do much.”
But when pressed later, she admitted to the adjustments in her life over the past four months.
“You guys are tweeting about me more, everyone is talking about me more,” Stephens said. “It’s a little bit overwhelming.”
She described winning the US Open as “the hardest two weeks of my life,” and explained the journey left her exhausted.
“I did three-and-a-half hours of press,” she said of how she spent her time immediately after winning the US Open. I was like, ‘This sucks, what have you done?'”
What she did by winning was put herself in a position where people actually want to hear her opinions on certain issues like the recent comments by Billie Jean King who Friday said Margaret Court Arena should undergo a name change because of the former Australian legend’s stance on same-sex marriages (Court is against it).
But Stephens, asked about King’s remarks, appeared irritated to be dragged into the controversy.
“You guys, don’t ask me these questions,” she said. “It’s up to the tournament. It’s not up to me.”
If Stephens was still ranked 934th in the world, perhaps she wouldn’t have been asked about the issue (and probably wouldn’t have appeared in the main interview room).
But winning a Grand Slam title — just the fourth African-American woman to do so — comes with added demands, and Stephens couldn’t avoid the controversy as the questions kept coming.
“I respect all of my fellow players, colleagues, their lifestyles,” Stephens finally admitted when pressed. “I don’t think there should be hate towards anyone. That’s that. I love all of my girls, everyone that I play with on a day-to-day basis. I support whatever it is they want to do and how they want to live.”
In all, the 20 minutes Stephens spent with the media played out like a frustrating chess match, which is kind of surprising considering she received a bachelor’s degree in Communications Studies from Indiana University East after taking online classes over the last three-and-a-half years.
“Everyone in my family has a degree,” Stephens said. “My mom has her doctorate. I was like, ‘I cannot be the only person that doesn’t have a degree.'”
Stephens taking the time to get a college degree, while playing tennis professionally, is a great story.
Stephens playing her way from the side courts of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium over the course of two weeks (in a year in which she fell so low in the rankings that she was concerned about whether she’d have exemptions for future tournaments) was a great story.
Stephens raising the trophy after winning the US Open — after starting 2017 with a broken bone in her foot — was one of the most memorable stories in women’s tennis last year.
That success led to a spot on couches next to Kelly Ripa, Ryan Seacrest and Jimmy Kimmel; an appearance on “Good Morning America,” a new deal with Nike (after being the face of women’s tennis for Under Armour since 2010) and a spike in followers on social media.
That’s what happens when you’re both clutch and resilient in winning a major title while displaying a joyful exuberance that was easy to embrace.
It was an entrance into the national spotlight for Stephens, whether she liked it or now.
Recently she has had some struggles, which may or may not have led to this post last month on Instagram:
Don’t talk, act.
Don’t say, show.
Don’t promise, prove.
Can she be all of that in 2018?
She can begin acting on that advice starting with her match against Zhang on Tuesday.
Last year, Stephens proved she’s capable of sustained greatness over a two-week period to win a major title.
If she’s able to duplicate that over the next two weeks — or at any major tournament in 2018 — here’s hoping she can embrace the payday, the increased social status and the demands on her time that will come with it.