Photo via AFP
Nineteen year old Madison Keys of the United States won her maiden WTA title at the prestigious Wimbledon warm up tournament at Eastbourne. She won by playing tennis. That sounds silly but stop and think a minute. The women's game is marred by the idiotic adoption of on court coaching but in the final analysis a player has to know how to think while playing tennis. It's not enough to have wonderful shots or a monster serve. It's what you do in your return game. It's point construction. It's adapting to the tactics of the woman playing across the net from you. So much goes into winning a match let alone a tournament that those who end up hoisting a trophy have a confidence those who haven't don't.
There are those who will say that winning Eastbourne is small potatoes, that the big prize is played for at SW 19. Every tennis player, male or female, wants to win Wimbledon. But not everyone is willing to go through the pain, the social isolation needed to become a champion in an individual sport like tennis. On the men's side look at players like Joao Sousa of Portugal or Ernests Gulbis of Latvia. Both men, now in their late twenties, have woken up to the fact that they want to have something to show for playing tennis. They've gotten themselves in shape both mentally and physically and in Gulbis case have actually won a title or two (or six).
American tennis players are not what their predecessors were. But the modern game of tennis isn't what their predecessors played. The modern game requires peak physical condition. It requires knowledge of how to play on all the surfaces the sport is played on. It sounds simple but it requires you to be able to think. All the practice, all the conditioning is for nothing if you get on court and do nothing more than make pretty shots. It's a lesson the European players seem to have learned. American players, not so much.
If you haven't already read Christopher Clarey 's excellent article on American tennis I suggest you take a few minutes and do so, especially since play begins on Monday June 23 on the lawns of Wimbledon. Here's an excerpt:
(Jim)Courier and other coaches and former players see a lack of world-class work ethic and toughness in too many of the young Americans.
“There are plenty of talented players who are not getting the most out of their talent,” Courier said, declining to name them.
Jose Higueras, Courier’s former coach and the director of coaching at the United States Tennis Association, would not argue.
“We try to show them what it takes, but they are not really that interested, at least for now...
The other issue is the desperation of the US tennis establishment for a big star, someone to show those uppity foreigners what's what. They're not alone in that belief (the countries that form what I call the Tennis Axis all feel that the current state of affairs is not the best for tennis) but I'm focusing on the United States right now so I'll stick with them. I hate to always pick on Lauren Davis but to me she's the symbol of what's wrong with American tennis. She's listed at 5'2" (1.57m). She holds seven ITF titles and is currently ranked #58. Let's compare her to Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia. She is said to be 5'3" (1.60m). Dominika has won four WTA titles and is ranked #10 in the world. How does a small in stature woman from Slovakia get to the top ten? Like her or not Justine Henin was also small in stature but made a name for herself in the upper echelons of women's tennis during the Big Babe era. I'm not going to get into how Henin did it. I'm talking about what a person who wants to be a champion does and how she carries herself.
We have to go back to Higueras comment that American players "are not really that interested" in what it takes to be at the top of the sport. The days are gone when you could show up on court with no muscle definition and nothing but your good looks and win. I was stunned to see the shape Sloane was in when she took the court this year. She was by no means fat but she was lugging a gut around that at least made me wonder where her head was. By comparison look at Madison Keys. She is beyond fit at the moment and it shows. Her movement has improved and she gets around the court very well for a tall woman. She's also worked hard on her game. All of her work resulted in her defeating a top ten player and winning her first title. I was surprised to find that Madison's coaches are from the USTA but that's not being fair to all USTA coaches. Madison listened where some of her peers haven't. Lauren Davis has a nice game. She makes nice shots. But she's not going to be the American version of Cibulkova unless she pushes herself the way Domi has.
I know I've taken the long way to get to the subject of this post, Sloane Stephens. I've said it before and I'll say it again and again. Her Australian Open win was a fluke. Serious fans know that it's only recently that either of the Williams sisters acknowledge when they're injured. Serena Williams has a sense of loyalty to women's tennis that has seen her play when maybe she shouldn't. A top player always has something wrong physically and as the saying goes if you take the court you're fit to play. When Sloane defeated her you would have thought the skies opened and angels descended to place a crown on Sloane's head and that the era of Serena Williams had come to an end. We all know that isn't what happened. Serena took that loss and decided that it wasn't going to happen again. Sloane took the win and decided she had made her bones and had nothing else to achieve. It appears as if there was no one in her camp to tell her that she hadn't done jack, that her game needs to improve, that she needs to study and train. I say appears because as is said "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink". And to be honest I can't say all of the fault is with Sloane. She was given the full star treatment by the USTA and US media. Anyone's head would be turned. She's apparently still on a star trip though and doesn't seem to realize she's not all that, that she's just another underachieving American player who came on the scene with great fanfare and promptly settled into the middling ranks. Madison Keys, unheralded Madison Keys, if she continues her hard work and sacrifice, has the potential to be a real star on the women's tour. She's not getting the media hype Stephens got and that is a very good thing. Fans have begun to pay attention though and that is also a good thing.
Meanwhile Sloane remains the only woman in the top thirty who has not won a title. She's yet to even make a final. And what's amazing is that she doesn't seem to care. No matter the failings of the USTA in tennis the fault will always be that of the player. Organizations protect themselves. Individuals have a much harder time of it. She wants to be treated as a champion because of one match. Maybe she should sit down and look at what has happened to her since that match and what has happened to the career of the loser. Maybe then she would realize that one match does not a career make. The Williams sisters, both Venus Williams and Serena Williams, are legends. As of now Sloane is destined to be a footnote. She can turn it around but it's going to take more work than she seems to be willing to do at this time.
Maria Kirilenko defeated Sloane in straight sets 6-2, 7-6(6). Keep in mind Sloane's goal was to make the quarter finals. Not to make the Final or even the semi final. Just the quarters. It's time for her to take a step back and reevaluate her approach to tennis. Enter and win a few low level tournaments. Then worry about the big dances. You have to win to know what it takes to win. The US press carrying on about your streak of always making the second week of a Major isn't complementary. It's called desperation to try and bolster what is now your sagging career. There are lots of lower level events you can enter now. Do it.