At ESPN’s annual ESPY awards on Wednesday, also known as the awards show that doesn’t actually mean anything, Maria Sharapova and Floyd Mayweather presented the fan-voted award for “Best Game.”
The 6’2″ Sharapova, “miffed” by her lack of introduction by master-of-ceremonies Drake, decided to take over the stage in the most hilarious way possible. She walked out in front of the 5’6″ boxing great, and then proceeded to prop herself up on him.
Awesome GIF is awesome.
Sharapova won for Best Female Tennis Player while Rafael Nadal claimed the ESPY for Best Male Tennis Player.
Oh, and Grigor Dimitrov (duh) and Sloane Stephens were also there reppin’ tennis.
A fun night was had by all.
The prevailing media narrative over the first third of the tennis year was the supposed, and completely ridiculous, mentor-mentee relationship between Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens.
We now know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that this was completely
staged invented…actually, I really don’t know what to call it. Granted, much of this entire farce was put forth by Stephens herself, but Serena wasn’t totally innocent either.
“She’s like one of my really good friends,” Stephens said to ESPN at the start of the year. “Everyone thinks she’s so mean, but she’s like the greatest person ever. We’re just young kids together. We never take anything too seriously.”
“I noticed Sloane I think years ago at TeamTennis maybe four years ago,” Serena said prior to their match in Melbourne. “I saw her in the locker room. She was another black girl. I was like, ‘Hey!’ That’s when I first noticed her. ‘What up, girl’?”
We never take anything too seriously. Oh?
After beating Bojana Jovanovski in a heated fourth round match in Australia, Stephens said that Serena told her “she should make more noise on-court” in her post match interview. We all know what happened next; Stephens defeated an injury hobbled Serena in three sets in the quarterfinals and quickly became the next media darling of American women’s tennis. Granted, since that match in Melbourne, Stephens is 2-8 while Serena is 15-1 with two titles.
Well, if Brisbane and Melbourne cracked the framework, then the perfect empire came crashing down on Friday when Stephens’ incredibly candid interview with Marin Cogan was released in ESPN: The Magazine. In it, the American #2…well, completely tears Serena a new one.
Some of the juiciest quotes are as follows:
“I’m annoyed, I’m over it,”she says of the Serena comparisons. I’ve always said Clijsters is my favorite player, so it’s kind of weird.” She attributes the media hype over her relationship to the star to “just being African American and they want to link to something.”
“She’s not said one word to me, not spoken to me, not said hi, not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia…And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter.”
Her mom tries to slow her down, but Sloane is insistent. “Like, seriously! People should know. They think she’s so friendly and she’s so this and she’s so that — no, that’s not reality! You don’t unfollow someone on Twitter, delete them off of BlackBerry Messenger. I mean, what for? Why?”
The interview peaks when Stephens recounts an incident from when she was 12, the first time she had seen Venus and Serena play in Delay Beach during Fed Cup. Her mom took Stephens and her brother to the tie to see the sisters play, and the family waited to try and get autographs.
“…I waited all day. They walked by three times and never signed our posters…I hung it up for a while. I was, like, devastated because they didn’t sign it, whatever, and then after that I was over it. I found a new player to like because I didn’t like them anymore.”
Rawr. It’s like this. The “mini-Serena” angle gave the mainstream sports (non-tennis) media, particularly in the United States, a reason to focus on tennis. Stephens’ win over Serena in Australia was the best thing she could’ve done for them…and the worst thing she could’ve done for everyone else. It was the changing of the guard, they said. The “new American hope” had arrived, they said. “Little Serena” was here to save us from the death of American tennis, they said.
“For the first 16 years of my life, she said one word to me and was never involved in my tennis whatsoever,” says Stephens. “I really don’t think it’s that big of a deal that she’s not involved now. If you mentor someone, that means you speak to them, that means you help them, that means you know about their life, that means you care about them. Are any of those things true at this moment? No…” I offer: “They want the next great American player.” Stephens says: “They want another Serena.”
Why Stephens and Serena (albeit briefly) felt the need to cater to this delusion rather than just be straight about their professional, competitive (lack of a) relationship from the get go remains a mystery to me.
This post first appeared at Tennis Grandstand.
It’s no secret that tennis is considered a niche sport in the United States. Mainstream American sports media does little to cater to the tennis fan base unless it has to or they have a narrative to sell. Therefore, the presence and popularity of tennis in the United States will always be dictated by the presence and popularity of its American stars. With Andy Roddick already retired and the Williams sisters approaching their mid-thirties, American tennis will soon be missing many of its dynamic, larger than life personalities. As a result, the mainstream media are desperate for the next star to promote the sport’s life and longevity in the United States; they look to embrace an emerging talent before he or she is ready to embrace them. Spoiler alert: it rarely ends well. The same mistakes continue to be made, yet little is being done to prevent the cycle from repeating itself.
It began with Melanie Oudin.
We all know the Oudin story. “Giant-killer” this, “giant-killer” that were the prevailing narratives during Oudin’s run to the US Open quarterfinals in 2009, where she defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova. All of a sudden, Oudin from Marietta, Georgia, a city with a population of about 57,000, was thrust into the spotlight in arguably the most famous city in the world.
We also know what happened next.
It’s not uncommon for a young player to have a breakthrough at a slam and then fail to produce the same results soon after. It’s only the special exceptions, the Sharapovas or Hingises, who adapt to the pressure and completely handle it at an early age. Couple that with Oudin’s grinding, counterpunching game, a game that a zoning opponent could competently dismantle, and she was bound for failure. After peaking at No. 31 in 2010, Oudin languished around in the lower echelons of the top 200 before returning to a double-digit ranking last year.
Next, Sloane Stephens arrived. Nobody seemed to learn. Stephens was different, they said. She can take matches into her own hands, they said. She had power, athleticism, the natural physical gifts that Oudin doesn’t. En route to the Australian Open quarterfinals, Simona Halep was Stephens’ highest-ranked opponent; the Romanian was ranked 45 when she fell in the first round. A solid run turned into a stunning one as Stephens defeated a hobbled Serena Williams, the prohibitive title favorite, in the quarterfinals. As quickly as Oudin’s star flamed out, Stephens’ supernova was born.
As the youngest player in the top 20, it appears that no one’s clued Stephens into the fact that it only gets harder the higher you rise. She’s become the hunted, rather than the hunter. If anything, she needs to work harder to stay ahead of the pack. After losing the last 10 games in a 6-4, 2-6, 0-6 defeat to Agnieszka Radwanska in Miami, Stephens displayed a somewhat complacent attitude. “I’m 16 in the world. I can lose in the first round the next two months and I probably would still be top 30. I’m not really too concerned about winning or losing or any of that, I don’t think.” Statements like this show that Stephens is already feeling the pressure to produce week in, week out.
Not only is she struggling to beat the elite (that win over Williams is her only top 10 win), but she’s struggling in matches she the favorite to win. She let huge leads slip against Klara Zakopalova and Sorana Cirstea in Doha and Dubai; these are not terrible losses, but no one seems to want to write about that. The story of another post-slam breakthrough slump is far more attractive.
Stephens was in tears following her 6-2, 6-0 loss to fellow American Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the second round in Charleston; the one-sided scoreline was incredibly unexpected if only for the reason that Mattek-Sands played nearly four hours in defeating Anastasia Rodionova the day before. Surprisingly, the “Mattek-Sands triumphs on the comeback trail from injury” narrative was non-existent; instead, “What’s wrong with Sloane?” dominates the headlines.
If you think this is only a WTA problem, you should ask John Isner, Sam Querrey and Ryan Harrison how they’re doing lately. You might even run into Donald Young along the way. One successful run does not make a superstar. Superstars are made over an entire career.
There are currently nine women not named Williams in the top 100 on the WTA rankings and a handful just on the outside. Let them share the spotlight. Are some of them more likely to win slams than others? Maybe. If they do, they’ll do so when they’re ready, not when a media narrative thinks they are. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging young talent but too much encouragement, too much “hype,” is a clear hindrance to their development. Young players can’t be expected to win a marathon before they can run an eight-minute mile.
I always tell myself that I’m never going to get involved with the two most ridiculous debates in tennis, grunting and equal prize money, but just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
Let me preface this by saying this is not going to be a rant about the aesthetics of grunting. Some find it annoying, while others, such as myself, aren’t bothered by it at all. That’s completely acceptable; I’m not here to force my opinion on others, nor would I appreciate others forcing their opinion on me. However, I am here to address facts.
It is because of this that I felt the need to write this, against my better judgement; despite the fact that this non-issue has already been beaten to hell and back, the commentary on it points towards another, even more glaring issue in tennis.