Fallout from Sloane Stephens' criticism of Serena Williams
I am curious why you think that Serena Williams needs to be a mentor while she is still an active player. I have not heard you or any other sportswriter say this about Maria Sharapova Victoria Azarenka, Li Na or any other active WTA player. Why single out Serena? Also, keep in mind that the Williams sisters did not come up through the USTA system and owe it nothing (unlike Sloane Stephens).
-- Shalini, Brooklyn, N.Y.
• Honestly, I'm torn here. Serena, of course, isn't obligated to be anyone's mentor. Other players are not her teammates; they are her adversaries. Her aura -- part of which encompasses intimidation -- is one of her great assets. She is a peerless competitor. It seems unfair to praise her for that in one breath and, in another, expect her to be the WTA's sorority rush chair.
That said, there is a history of older players mentoring younger players, especially from the same country. Roger Federer-Stanislas Wawrinka. (Actually, Federer-countless others. He even tapes a PSA for the ITF juniors, availing himself to their questions.) Carlos Moya- Rafael Nadal. Andy Roddick-Ryan Harrison. Kim Clijsters-Kirsten Flipkens.
Moreover, a central theme of the Williams narrative: As African-American women, they often felt like outsiders when they came on the circuit. (This was reinforced most recently in the superb Venus and Serena documentary.) You might think that Serena, in her 30s and having established herself as an (the?) all-time great, might be inclined to reach out a bit more to a young African-American in Stephens who is breaking through.
Serena has always been complex. She has bucked conventional wisdom and social convention on countless occasions. It's part of what makes her who she is. Bless her for that. (Most of the time.) But by the same token, I think we're entitled to feel some surprise that she hasn't taken on more of a leadership role with Stephens. And I don't buy your analogy. Yes, we're arguing hypotheticals. But if, in 2020, 31-year-old, all-time great Victoria Azarenka has a spat with a young prospect from Belarus, I think we're similarly surprised that there isn't more of a kindred relationship.
Serena has had some of her worst moments in life on the tennis court in the eyes of the public. I strongly doubt the notion of her being a phony -- awesome in public, less than awesome outside the public's eyes -- holds up, all things considered. This IS Serena, after all. Furthermore, information abounds showing that Stephens played the great role in playing up her relationship with Serena. In Australia, Serena was the first to indicate that their mentorship isn't really a mentorship.
At a time when the tour is lacking women with the competitive instincts and fire of Serena, I'm not about to throw her under the bus for showing her competitive fire here. Sloane could perhaps learn some of it.
-- Justin, Kingston
• I'm just playing the role of impartial observer now, but if my mail is any indication, Serena came out way ahead of Stephens on this exchange, such as it was. A few points I'll make:
1) It's hard to crack on a player for not signing an autograph. (Stephens, you'll recall, chided Serena for not signing her poster years ago.) Athletes are absolutely bombarded with requests. They'll sign their name 99 times and the 100th fan will walk away muttering with displeasure.
2) As she did with Caroline Wozniacki's unflattering impersonation, Serena is high-roading this. Remember this the next time you call her graceless.
3) It strikes to me that there is something particularly nasty about one athlete calling another a fraud. It's thoroughly unfair. You give the accused two choices. She can defend herself, and stoop to your level. Or she can give a dignified response, yet you have poisoned the stew, as you have left the impression that she is insincere.
4) I know I'm not alone in feeling old here: The kids communicate with their gadgets and their devices. "Screen time" and "social media," they call it. I believe that in Stephens' universe, getting unfollowed and dissed via Twitter constitute high crimes. As @tcote wrote to me (via Twitter!), "If I were a reasonably high-profile (and American, to boot) tennis player, I would probably see that as a notable slight, too."
5) After today, let's give this a rest. Sloane Stephens and Serena Williams have, apparently, moved on. We will, too.
Psquared is getting very angry (blatant attempt to get in the mailbag). He can't stand the way you are always bashing Serena. You clearly hate her because she's prettier than you. Also, psquared really can't stand how you are always defending Serena! It's like you are on her payroll!
-- Psquared, Los Angeles
• Again, we are suckers for third person here. I suppose it cuts to the essence of being a fan, but the range of interpretation -- based on your loyalties and likes -- never ceases to amaze me. A tweeter named @speaklifetoo wrote: "You always want Serena to be more humble than anyone else & go above & beyond? Why the double standard?" Based on the exact same column, reader "TokyoJoe" said, "I should have known you wouldn't have the [expletive] to defend Sloane against Serena, who never does anything wrong in your book."
For the record, I have zero issues with Serena on this one. I revert to my old statement: If you are expecting the female version of Federer or Nadal, you're going to be disappointed. If you're willing to take a warts-and-all approach and trade in some rough edges and the occasional breach of decorum for a fearless, peerless champion, this is your player.
Reader Ryan Taylor of Los Angeles put it this way: "Sadly, if Serena were to behave like a proper lady (i.e., no drama), she would probably not be a multiple Grand Slam champion. As Alex Ferguson commented about Eric Cantona and more recently Brendan Rodgers spoke similarly of Luis Suarez, the highly competitive elite athletes have a brutal streak to their personalities and that's what drives them to win."
No doubt you're inundated with Serena/Sloane questions and comments this week. Here are two I'm hoping you'll address:
1. It's my understanding that Sloane came up through the USTA program and spent some time at the Evert Academy. Her mother is a former collegiate swimmer and her father played in the NFL. How does a player with that kind of pedigree not have proper media training? She's certainly made enough cash in the last year to hire a PR person. Seriously, players "just off the farm" know better than to call out an active player in the petty and juvenile way that Sloane called out Serena. What was the point? Richard Williams already told us years ago that Serena is mean, so this wasn't exactly news. It just makes Sloane look like a 20-year-old with a middle-school mentality.
2. Can you get Nike to use your line, "Come at The Queen, you best not miss" as a marketing slogan for Serena's clothing line? (I'm sure you can get David Simon on board.)
-- T. Evans, Warrenton, N.C.
• 1) We can't have it both ways. If we're going to praise Stephens for her candor, outgoing personality and blissful, assiduous avoidance of the one-match-at-a-time pablum, we should go easy on her when she makes an ill-considered remark. But, yes, I wonder what she had to gain from that outburst.
2) Your Wire question gives me an opportunity to note Simon's tremendous piece on the Baltimore Orioles from Sports Illustrated last fall.
All eyes will be trained on Serena Williams at the French Open, don't you think? Do you believe that last year's shocking exit still gives her sleepless nights? If yes, which version of Serena should be expect at Roland Garros -- the crazy, edgy one who is a menace to all linespeople, or the champion who lets her racket do all the talking?
-- Sheba, Brisbane, Australia
• What? An actual tennis question about Serena? What's that all about? Here are Serena's last five Slam results. Imagine plotting these on a graph:
2012 Australian Open: Fourth-round loss to Ekaterina Makarova
2012 French Open: First-round loss to Virginie Razzano
2012 Wimbledon: Win
2012 U.S. Open: Win
2013 Australian Open: Quarterfinal loss to Stephens
All of which is to say that the range of outcome is quite vast. Personally, I'm through betting against Serena. Let's leave it here for now: She's more likely to win the French Open than lose again in the first round.
At the risk of seeming presumptuous, I suggest that you resurrect a line written in 2007 by a certain tennis journalist: "Kudos to Stan Wawrinka on this week's tournament victory; it's about time Switzerland produced a decent tennis player." Please pardon my failure to write an interrogative sentence.
-- Russell Greenidge, Yuma, Ariz.
• You're pardoned.
Caja Magica, Jon? How about Caja Vacia instead? What is with these venues looking so empty? I consider myself a huge fan, but as I sit at home watching Tennis Channel's coverage of the Madrid Open, I am embarrassed. This is one of our Masters events and it looks horrible on TV. Where is everybody? I wish that the cameras would just center themselves on the court, but show nothing more. It looks terrible.
-- Chris De Tone, Clearwater, Fla.
• Nice pun! From the Dirty Secret files, Exhibit A: In this age of sponsorship and global television and digital rights and streaming video, actual fans -- i.e. butts in seats -- have never mattered less. If an event finds a title sponsor and some network partners, that matters a good deal more than a few thousand extra fans buying tickets.
Exhibit B: As the players have squeezed the Grand Slams for more lucre, it has the unfortunate effect of devaluing the other events. When the players essentially send the message that, "The Slams are the tentpoles and everything else is sandwich filling" (they mix metaphors, these players) it's not surprising that the standard events suffer from dismal attendance.
You can make a comment, you can say you're not going to comment, but you cannot just ignore the news from last week regarding Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert. If you and your journalistic colleagues want to take the proverbial high road and say this is not about tennis per se, go for it, but please don't pretend that everyone in the tennis world (and many beyond) are not talking about it. They are two of the all-time greats.
-- Tim Johnson, New York
• If we stuck only to "tennis per se," we would have a very thin column. Still, I'm not sure what there is to say here. If Connors was hellbent on mentioning this event, a) he should have been less squirrely ("An issue had arisen as a result of youthful passion and a decision had to be made as a couple") and b) he should have had the common courtesy to give the other party a heads up. Though clearly and understandably upset, Evert responded with typical class and grace.
I think Bethanie Mattek-Sands is now maybe the second best US female player.
-- Bill, Tulsa, Okla.
• Her post-Australia swoon notwithstanding, I think Stephens still comes in at No. 2. That said, big props to BMS, who, at age 28, is playing perhaps the best tennis of her career. Having started the year with a phone number for a ranking, she has won scads of matches (21), beaten a string of solid players (Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Stephens, Sara Errani on clay) and climbed to No. 68. Good for her. Now all she needs to do is trash a top player and we'll take notice.
Do you have an update on Brian Baker? The French Open approaches, and it would be great to see him replicate his run from last year.
-- Charles, Washington
• He is home in Nashville, Tenn., and has been given the green light to practice in full. I'm told he will decide by early next week if he will come back from his knee injury on the clay or delay for a few more weeks. He plans to go to Florida to practice with Todd Martin before he returns.
• John Tomic needs to be banned from tennis, if not all of civilized society. The New York Times' Chris Clarey is on it.
• Lost in this: Bernard Tomic has suddenly become a sympathetic figure. If you catch him playing these next several weeks, I suspect he could use a little extra support.
• In a good mood and want it to end? Check out Arantxa Rus' results.
• Last week I was asked about songs inspired by tennis players. Here were some of your submissions:
-- Michael Wayne Everett of Los Angeles: "My favorite song referring to tennis players is Venus and Serena by the Super Furry Animals."
-- Russianista of Bloomington, Ind: "A Russian band called Umaturman was inspired by the whole bastion of Russian female tennis players with this song. The names that any tennis fan will recognize are mentioned from 1:15 to 1:22. In addition, at 2:07 the guy sings "Oh, Anna Kournikova, why do you need this Enrique guy? Why don't you come back? We have good singers here too." Also, there's a music video by a Russian singer starring Elena Dementieva."
-- Jerry of Reno, Nev.: "You forgot to mention that the great Saint Etienne has a song named Conchita Martinez that features samples from Rush."
-- Barbara Beck of Rochester, Minn.: "You missed Eric Hutchinson's Watching You Watch Him (with respect to his wife's watching Federer play)."
-- Someone whose email I've misplaced noted that Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders has said she thought of John McEnroe when writing Don't Get Me Wrong.
• Venus Williams and Andy Roddick have become part owners of WorldTeam Tennis.