From Serena Williams, to Maria Sharapova, to Eugenie Bouchard, everyone and their mother repeats the well known Billie Jean King quote “pressure is a privilege”. What exactly does this phrase mean? I went to my favourite research tool, Google and typed in the phrase along with Billie Jean King. Turns out that the complete phrase is “Pressure is a Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes” and is the title of a book penned by Ms. King herself. It is available on Amazon and a link to the page is here.
I find it a bit conceited that so many players, as well as fans spout this phrase without a real awareness of the pressure which Ms. King references. As soon as a player who has been thrust into the media spotlight does not perform to tennis fans’ overly inflated expectations, they echo King’s sentiments. Frankly, until you have lived what Ms. King and others of her ilk have experienced, especially in the context of being a female professional athlete, you really don’t get to use that phrase willy nilly. The latest victim of the pressure narrative is Sloane Stephens; she has failed to live up to tennis media and fans’ expectations
In 2013, Sloane Stephens, then a young up and comer with loads of talent beat Serena Williams at the Australian Open quarter-finals. It was a wonderful performance by the youngster and it shot her into the tennis spotlight. The last person to be thrust into the spotlight after beating Serena, was none other than Maria Sharapova. Immediately thereafter, there was the interview in Rolling Stone where she called out Serena for slamming the door on their “friendship”, one manufactured by the press. As well as comments to suggest that Serena “was never my favourite player anyway”. There was the unfollow on Twitter as well as the unfriending on BBM. In short, the so-called friendship that was constantly referred to via the press went up in smoke.
While there was some initial sympathy for Sloane, whom many deemed too immature to know what to share with the press, she no longer gets a pass for her youth. The shift is directly related to her dip in form in Grand Slams. She has gone from being celebrated for her exuberance and love of the big stage to a problem child. After making the second week of 6 straight Slams from 2013-2014, Sloane has now been ousted in the early rounds of her last 2 Slams. In her defeat today against Johanna Larsson of Sweden, she made 63 unforced errors.
I admit that I had great expectations for Sloane after she took on Thomas Hogstedst. I believe, and still do that it is a better hire than Paul Annacone, who really did not bring much to the table in terms of tactics. Sloane and Thomas will need time before we can see results. Yet, all I see is criticism of Sloane by tennis media and fans for failing to fall in line with their expectations. They did it to Oudin and are probably about to begin with Bellis.
Who knows why Sloane has not been able to back-up the promise she showed in her take down of Serena in Australia. Is it about her lack of hunger?
Many of you will remember that part of growing up was moving out of your parents’ home. If you did not wish to move out voluntarily, your parents made your life a living hell, forcing you to move out. Once you were on your own you found that you developed a drive and determination to succeed because if you did not, not only would your rent not be paid, but you could never afford that pair of shoes or that vacation that you wanted. Sloane still lives at home, and that maybe part of the problem. From Sharapova to Federer to Azarenka, most players who have succeeded in this sport will tell you that part of that whole process was learning to tough it out. From Federer being sent away by his parents to a training camp to live, to Sharapova leaving Russia and coming to America, to Azarenka leaving Belarus, all these players have had to make sacrifices to achieve their dreams.
I don’t like to compare players, but after watching Azarenka’s match yesterday and seeing her come from behind and win a match that she should have lost, not playing her best tennis, but giving it her all, you see the hunger and determination and the will to succeed.
I believe Sloane still has to find that drive and desire to succeed in tennis on her own terms. It is disappointing that she has to manage others’ expectations as she tries to find her way in the sport. Now, these thwarted expectations have created an unduly negative storyline about a perfectly normal and natural evolution for a young player. I say give her some time. Let her try and figure it out. Remember, Rome was never built in a day and neither were Grand Slam champions.