Up-and-coming tennis star Sloane Stephens is often compared to Serena Williams, the No. 1 ranked tennis player in the world. Stephens, 20, has kept her lips sealed on her relationship with Williams until a recent interview with ESPN the Magazine.
In the candid Q&A, Stephens reveals tension with the Williams sisters and her honest opinion of Serena as a competitor and fellow woman of color.
Stephens defeated Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals in January and claims communication has ceased between them since the upset.
“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,” Stephens said in a press interview before the U.S. Fed Cup.
“And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter.”
Williams splintered her racket, slamming it on the pavement after Stephens defeated her in Melbourne. Stephens alleges this led to an unfollow and a tweet directed toward her.
“Like, seriously! People should know,” Stephens told the magazine. “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?”
Williams is a competitor, so her cool attitude toward Stephens could be perceived as a defense mechanism rather than a brewing feud between the tennis phenoms.
Serena has worked with Stephens during the 2012 Fed Cup, but she’s in no rush to mentor the burgeoning star.
“It’s hard to be a real mentor when you’re still in competition,” Williams said before her match with Stephens during the Australian Open prior. “But I’m here to compete and do the best I can, as well as she. And she’s been doing really amazing. I’m really happy [for her].”
Stephens retorts Williams’ statement, claiming she’s not seeking a mentor. She simply wants respect and approval from a woman she’s referred to as a “great influence” in previous interviews.
“For the first 16 years of my life, she said one word to me and was never involved in my tennis whatsoever,” Stephens tells ESPN the Magazine.
“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, so therefore…”
Stephens’ conflict with Williams might also stem from an incident when she was 12. She saw the Williams sisters at a Fed Cup match and was not pleased with their attitudes toward fans.
“I waited all day [for an autograph],” she said. “They walked by three times and never signed our posters.”
This incident led to Stephens adopting Kim Clijsters as her favorite tennis player.
“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.”
Stephens insists she has no interest in being compared to Serena, but that hasn’t stopped reporters from asking her about it. “I’m annoyed. I’m over it,” she told ESPN the Magazine.
“I’ve always said Kim Clijsters is my favorite player, so it’s kind of weird.” She believes the media wants to compare her to Williams because they’re both African-American.
However, what separates Williams from her competitors is her desire to win and excel in tennis. Stephens has a 2-7 record since defeating Williams, leading some critics to doubt her abilities.
One interviewer at a press event asked her: “What’s happening differently with these matches? You’ve lost four out of the last seven. What’s different than what was happening at the Australian that worked so well?”
“I mean, it’s just a rough time. I don’t know,” she answered. “There’s not — there’s no specific thing that I’d say has happened or is not happening, but I don’t think it really matters.”
Stephens’ losses aren’t crushing her spirit. She realizes she still has the potential to be one of the best players in the world.
“I’m 16th in the world. I can lose in the first round for the next two months and probably still be top 30. I’m not really too concerned about winning or losing or any of that, I don’t think,” she said.
Stephens ultimate goal doesn’t diverge much from Williams. She wants to break records.
“However good I can be, I hope I go there. I obviously want to win a grand slam, but whatever I do, however long I play, I hope I sustain a really long career, a healthy one, just a pretty consistent career.”
For emphasis she repeats: “I obviously want to win a grand slam.”