Sloane Stephens isn’t living up to expectations. First there was the loss to Simona Halep in the battle of Generation We-Got-Next at the French Open, and on Monday she lost to Maria Kirilenko 6-2, 7-6 (8-6) in the first round at Wimbledon.
Just 17 months ago, she beat Serena Williams at the Australian Open. Now, while doing well in several majors, she has never even won a pro tournament at any level.
What is wrong with Sloane Stephens? There are things for sure, things that make me wonder if she can be a major champion. But she’s still in the development stages of her career. And the narrative about her shortcomings is revolving around a timetable that was based on expectations that should never have been put on her in the first place.
The point is this: She is not living up to the hype and expectations, but it was the hype and expectations that were wrong.
Here is an example. Earlier this year, a writer at ESPN.com wrote about Stephens’ failure to live up to her hype, yet also ripped the "hype machine” over and over. The article said the goal of reaching greatness is made difficult by the public’s and media’s desire "to anoint."
All great points, except for one thing: When Stephens had beaten Williams in Melbourne, that same writer wrote that "Sloane Stephens is ready" and "She may not be ready yet to be favored to win a slam, but that doesn’t mean she’s not ready to win one."
No, she wasn’t ready. She still isn’t. We don’t know if she ever will be. I’ll get into that in a minute. But whose hype was she failing to live up to, anyway?
Even at the time, and shortly after, I warned people not to make too big a deal out of that win over Williams, as Williams’ back was hurt so bad she could barely move. Stephens’ arrow was pointing up, though.
Now, she has flown too high on borrowed wings, to steal a phrase. And the media desperation to always find something new, something fast, something first, has only threatened her career. We overhype these kids, and they aren’t ready for it. Adults aren’t ready for it, either, by the way.
But Donald Young and his parents did not need to hear, when he was a little kid, that John McEnroe thought he’d be the next, well, John McEnroe. It threw off everything and it has taken Young a decade to get his head on right.
Michelle Wie won golf’s U.S. Open Sunday, and is one of the most amazing sports stories out there. As a kid, she was hyped as the female Tiger Woods, and then started playing on the men’s tour. She ended up backing off, going to Stanford, growing up and now re-emerging as one of the best players in the world.
Stephens’ loss Monday ended a streak of six straight trips to the second week at a major.
The hype, of course, is gone because she isn’t a gimmick anymore, but instead the real thing.
Stephens didn’t get that type of hype, but after she beat Williams, she was definitely labeled as the heir apparent. And what she needed was space and room to grow. She did not need false comparisons.
Stephens is 21 now, and her string of reaching the second week of majors just ended at six. She showed up at the Australian Open out of shape.
At the French, Halep and Eugenie Bouchard bypassed Stephens to the top of their generation. They are ready to move to the top tier of the sport.
It’s not too late for Stephens.. She moves well and has effortless strokes with enough power. She doesn’t have nearly enough pop on her serve, though. That can be fixed with tweaks; she’s big enough and certainly strong enough to hit it hard. And she is now working with Roger Federer’s former coach, Paul Annacone, who can figure that out.
The question with Stephens is her fire. Too often, there isn’t any evidence of it. She was flat in the first set Monday.
Can you teach fire? She has had more success in majors than in other tournaments, so people are labeling her a big-game player. I fear she’s just not interested enough in non-majors, so she gets beaten. On the women’s tour, there isn’t much difference between, say, the 11th best player in the world and the 50th.
For example, Kirilenko is just as good as Stephens.
Williams also has a history of not playing as hard in non-majors, but when you’re one of the greatest players of all time, you’re able to turn it on in big moments. Stephens is not Serena, and needs to learn to fight at all times.
It can still happen. There’s still time.
Stephens offers hope, but no guarantees. The hype machine swings wildly, but reality has never changed.