Stephens, left, and Williams at the 2013 Australian Open. (Credit: Sports Illustrated)
When Sloane Stephens and Serena Williams met in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open this January, the tennis media rushed to compare the two — one a 20-year-old budding star, the other perhaps the most dominant player the game has ever seen — and develop the idea that they had a relationship in which Williams was mentoring Stephens to follow in the 15-time Grand Slam champion’s footsteps.
Before the match, in which Stephens became the first American woman younger than Williams to defeat her, espnW said the two “quickly became friends” upon meeting the summer before, while Britain’s Daily Mail said they “get along well off of the court” because of their “obvious similarities.” The media quickly built up the mentor-protege storyline, even though Williams dismissed it, telling a reporter who asked about it directly that “it’s hard to be a real mentor when you’re still in competition.”
The idea of a special relationship between the two players blew up today, when it became clear that it “wasn’t the fairy tale the media made it out to be.” Stephens, it turns out, doesn’t consider the most dominant player of this generation a friend or a mentor, and she isn’t particularly interested in the “next Serena” label that has been tacked on her back in the weeks since her victory in Melbourne, as Marin Cogan detailed in her excellent piece examining the expectations facing the young tennis star in ESPN The Magazine’s upcoming issue:
“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, so therefore … ”
I offer: “They want the next great American player.”
Stephens says: “They want another Serena.”
That the two don’t have the fairy tale relationship has now become a story itself, with outlets proclaiming that Stephens “ripped” Williams in the interview. But none of that answers why it was so important that such a relationship exist, or why such a relationship was expected. Williams, after all, doesn’t seem the mentoring type: she eschewed the tennis academy culture favored by many young players to be coached by her father — a fact that has earned both resentment and skepticism in the tennis world — leaving her without many of the traditional structures that surrounds other players. And in a game that is inherently individualistic, perhaps no recent player has displayed such a singular focus on dominating her opponents as Williams. The idea, then, that she would set that aside to aid a player who is coming after the very mantle she has set seems absurd on its face. The idea that Stephens, who matriculated through academies, never considered Williams her favorite player, and has a coach who was a former pro himself, would need such a mentor seems nearly as hard to believe.
So why did the myth of that relationship persist? It grew, as Cogan notes, in part because the players allowed it to, even as Williams downplayed it. But did it also endure because the semblances between Williams and Stephens — they are both African-Americans, they are both women, they both play somewhat similar styles of tennis — made for an interesting storyline in a tennis world that, frankly, needs them? The same media accounts that outlined the mentor-protege relationship referred to “obvious similarities” between the two, the fact that it would be a “a mirror image in some ways” when they stared across the net at each other, and that Serena originally was fond of seeing “another black girl” in the lockerroom.
Williams, though, has never been considered a mentor to other young Americans, like Melanie Oudin, who arose as Next Big Things during her career, and we’ve never expected male athletes, like Tiger Woods or Roger Federer, who shared her focus and drive to mentor younger players who followed them. Did we need the sport’s biggest African-American star to mentor the first major African-American player to come after her? Do we expect that a young woman in a sport where so many Next Big Things failed before needed a big sister on the court to succeed? Do we hold our top women to a separate standard, asking them to ease their desires to beat each other so that they can be friends too? We never asked Federer to mentor a young Rafael Nadal; we’ve never questioned why Tiger Woods wasn’t helping someone else win The Masters.
Of course it’s desirable for the two players to get along and treat each other with respect. But the expectation that Williams should be a mentor to Stephens, and that Stephens needed Williams to mentor her, is unfair to both of them. Why should we expect Williams to welcome a competitor and set aside the quality we’ve admired most about her — her ability to focus on her goal of dominating opponents the way no one has before? And why should Stephens want to be “another Serena” instead of just “the next great American player,” a role she could define for herself? And instead of enjoying their greatness, why do we need them to be friends, too?