Sloane Stephens and the Art of Defending

Sloane Stephens and the Art of Defending

When Sloane Stephens won the United States Open last year, she delighted tennis fans worldwide with her joyful celebration, which included sitting beside Madison Keys, her vanquished opponent and friend, to chat and share a laugh.

She played the role of the charismatic champion well. She captivated fans and reporters with her smile and joked that the $3.7 million check she had just won was all the motivation she needed to win more Grand Slam titles.

But 50 weeks later, as Stephens returned to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for a required appearance at the U.S. Open’s media day, she hung back for a moment at the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, then marched purposefully to the podium — no smiles or hugs this time — to discuss how things had changed.

“As defending champion, obviously, a lot of stress, a lot of pressure,” she said. “I’m just going to go out and handle it as best I can.”

As Stephens, 25, has begun to learn, becoming a new Grand Slam winner brings with it a complex mixture of emotions, responsibilities and challenges that can be overwhelming. Sponsors, fans and media outlets seek more time with the new champions, opponents fire themselves up to vanquish the new victors, and expectations soar.

Stephens has had mixed results since winning the U.S. Open, and joins a list of other recent champions who are discovering that the return trip to the champion’s podium is strewn with obstacles. In the last 19 months, beginning with the Australian Open in January 2017, seven different women have won the last seven Grand Slam titles.

Of the seven — Serena Williams, Jelena Ostapenko, Garbiñe Muguruza, Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber — four were first-time major champions. If someone other than those seven women wins the U.S. Open, it will be the first time since 1937-38 that there has not been at least one repeat Grand Slam champion over a two-year period.

The seven different names on the four major trophies since 2017 underscore the current depth in the women’s game, along with the inescapable fact that Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, missed four of those tournaments because of her pregnancy. But even Williams, who won her first major title in 1999 at the U.S. Open, did not win her second until almost three years later, at the 2002 French Open.

Kerber won the Australian Open and the U.S. Open during a remarkable 2016 season, but she suffered a precipitous downturn in 2017. Defending her titles, she lost in the fourth round at the Australian Open and in the first round at the U.S. Open. Kerber fell from No. 1 in the world to No. 21.

Part of the difficulty, Kerber explained, was learning to be a champion, after the fact. All the psychological effects associated with such a life change are compounded by more tangible distractions.

“It’s more in your mind about how you want to act as a defending champion,” Kerber said. “If you go to the tournament and you know in your mind you have the pressure on your back, then it’s hard. I know. I did it the first time the same. I was the defending champion, and I had much more pressure, I was not really relaxed, I made things too much complicated than I did the year before.

“And I think this is the biggest problem, when you go there with too many things in your mind. Right now, if I go to the tournament where I won, I just try to enjoy it.”

Kerber said that off-court obligations, like meetings with sponsors and requests for media interviews, increased exponentially. While she continued to train just as diligently, she found she had little time left for her life. So after 2017, Kerber said, she sought to step back and enjoy her triumphs while carving out more time for herself — hours spent reading books, relaxing in coffee shops, running on the beach and watching movies in her hotel room.

Eventually, she learned that being a champion also meant enjoying the rewards. With her renewed energy, she beat Williams at Wimbledon last month for her third major title, a little breakthrough after a short drought.

“It was not so easy to deal with all the pressure and all the pressure of myself, to be honest,” Kerber, 30, said in a telephone interview. “The experience, to go through the ups and downs and after 2017 feel like, ‘O.K., now I know how it is to win a Grand Slam.’”

For Ostapenko, 21, it was even worse when she returned to Paris as defending French Open champion in May. She cited the weight of expectations as a factor in her shocking first-round loss to Kateryna Kozlova.

“I had this unbelievable pressure,” Ostapenko said that day. “I felt that I’m not myself today on court.”

Now it is Stephens’s turn to defend her U.S. Open title. Besides the on-court barrage from players looking to end her reign, her challenge will also come from a litany of requests and demands on her time, with interviews, special appearances, photo shoots and meetings.

Stephens understands what is coming, said Kamau Murray, her coach, but will try to remain focused on tennis, just as she did last year when, ranked 83rd, she slipped around the spotlight to beat Keys in the final.

There will be many more obligations this time around, to be certain. But Murray said Stephens had already declined several requests for her time as a way to preserve the sanctuary of her life as a tennis player first.

“Defending a title, even just the word ‘defend,’ comes with some level of pressure and expectations,” he said this month in Montreal. “She knows it’s coming. To her credit, she would like to limit the talk about it. There is going to be a lot of talk she can’t do anything about, but she doesn’t want to add to it.”

This month, Stephens outlined her plan for managing the extra time commitments leading into the Open. The best tactic, she said, was simply to stay on court.

“When you kind of get into tournament mode, you’re playing big tournaments week after week, there’s not any time to do anything,” she said after a semifinal win in Montreal, then added with a smile and both thumbs raised, “As long as you stay in the tournament, keep winning, you don’t have to do anything, so yeah.”

Even in the small window since her title, Stephens, now ranked No. 3, has been up and down that confounding roller coaster of recent first-time champions. After she won the U.S. Open in September, she lost her next eight matches, including in the first round against Zhang Shuai at the Australian Open.

But Murray noted that Stephens was a very organized person and not the type to allow her social life to take over after a major victory.

He said Stephens’s little slide was not so much about becoming a first-time champion as it was the result of the fatigue from playing so many matches in a row leading up to last year’s U.S. Open final, which came shortly after she had missed 11 months because of foot surgery.

“You’ve got all that in a short time frame and then you’ve got me yelling at you in the week off in between?” he said. “You’re tired. But I’m not saying the only reason she lost those matches was because she was sort of not healthy. I’m saying, as a coach, it was more about health than it was about her freaking out. She doesn’t freak out.”

By March, Stephens had rebounded. She won the Miami Open. Then she made it to the final of the French Open, where she lost to Halep in three sets. Stephens also reached the final in Montreal, where she lost to Halep again in an exciting three-set duel, and she arrives at the U.S. Open competing at a very high level again.

Wozniacki’s big moment came at the Australian Open in January, the culmination of a burning quest, as a former No. 1 player, to validate that top ranking with a major title. Since then, Wozniacki, now No. 2, has also had uneven results. She lost in the fourth round in Paris and the second round at Wimbledon, and has not won two consecutive matches since June.

“After you win a Grand Slam, that’s kind of like: ‘O.K., what’s next? I’ve kind of done it all now,’” Wozniacki, 28, said. “That, for me, was a mental shift that I had to make.”

The top-ranked Halep gained her first major title in Paris, in her fourth Grand Slam final. She said her approach since June has been to embrace the extra attention and have fun with it, and it seems to be working. Although she lost in the third round at Wimbledon, Halep, 26, won the title in Montreal and reached the final in Cincinnati.

“Definitely, a little bit my life changed with the attention from the fans and from the people outside,” she said. “I try just to enjoy this moment, to embrace it as much as possible. It also gives me energy, but sometimes I feel tired. Sometimes I feel upset after a practice that is not going the right way. But I try just to enjoy it and I try to take as maybe the best moment of my life.”

After Halep won in Paris, it was Kerber’s turn to add her name to the list of consecutive different Grand Slam winners. The last time seven different players won seven straight Grand Slams was 2011 through 2012: Kim Clijsters, Li Na, Petra Kvitova, Sam Stosur, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Williams.

Having eight different players win the four main Grand Slam events over two calendar years is extremely rare, for women and men. It has happened twice for the men since 1922, the first year when both men and women competed for the four Grand Slams.

For the women, in addition to 1937-38, there were eight different winners in a row from 1977 to 1978, when nine majors were contested because there were two Australian Opens in 1977. But Chris Evert won the U.S. Open both years, so there was one two-time major champion in that span.

Soon after that, Tracy Austin won the 1979 U.S. Open at 16. It took her five more Grand Slams over two years to win again — at the 1981 U.S. Open. But she said she never felt pressure to defend her title, and her approach may offer guidance to Stephens and others trying to navigate the challenges of being a new major champion.

“To me it was all a bonus,” Austin said. “I had already won.”

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