|Sports on Earth|
I’m shocked. Might have a serious case of the vapors. Luckily, I’m sitting down. As it turns out, Serena Williams isn’t much of a metaphoric big sister to up-and-coming tennis pro Sloane Stephens. Nor does Stephens seem to be looking for Williams’ imprimatur. To the contrary, a new ESPN the Magazine story indicates that 20-year-old American is more than a little sick of the notion that Williams has served as her mentor:
“I’m annoyed. I’m over it,” she says of all the Serena comparisons. “I’ve always said Kim Clijsters is my favorite player, so it’s kind of weird.” She attributes the media hype over her relationship to the star to “just being African-American and them wanting to link to something.” Then she begins to tell the story of when she was 12 and first saw Serena play. Her mom took Sloane, her younger brother, Shawn, and her stepdad to the Fed Cup in Delray Beach, Fla., and the family waited around all day for the Williams sisters to sign their posters.
Stephens’ mom, Sybil, is sitting next to her, looking almost like her sister — the same classic beauty, both of them in shades of gray athletic wear — and gives her daughter a look of incredulity. “Are you really telling this story?”
“Yes!” Sloane says. “The people need to know! I waited all day. They walked by three times and never signed our posters.” She pauses to ask whether she ever hung it in her room. Her mom nods. Sloane continues: “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.”
But wait. There’s more. Writer Marin Cogan describes a Williams-Stephens relationship that was never particularly close and deteriorated rapidly after the latter upset the former at the Australian Open in January, with Williams unfollowing Stephens on Twitter, Tweeting a cryptic put-down – “I made you” – and not saying “one word” to Stephens or “looking her way” since the match. All of this, of course, flies in the face of the narrative propagated before the same match, when reports suggested that the two players were the tennis equivalent of Luke and Obi-Wan, with Williams in the role of sage Jedi Master.
The last part is why I need a fainting couch.
Serena Williams, tennis mentor? To a rival player who’s actually, you know, good? Ah ha ha ha ha ha. Ha. Okay. I’m better now. Just had to let that out. But seriously: do tennis writers actually watch tennis? I know that the Gracious Vet Giving Back to the Next Generation is a comforting sports trope, right up there with Undersized Scrappers Sporting Oversized Hearts and Father-Son Catch as Proxy for Genuine Emotional Connection. I also know that sometimes – once in a rare, rare while – it’s even true: witness former New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson helping train his replacement, John Conner, a few years back.
Mostly, though, it’s balderdash. There is no Circle of Sports Life. There’s just brutal, survival-of-the-fittest competition. Particularly in tennis, where there are no teams and players eat what they kill. That said, you don’t have to be an athlete to relate. Think of this way: you have a job. You’re good. Well-paid. You’ve been doing it for a while. Along comes an intern. The intern is good. Could end up as good as you. Could end up taking your job. Are you really going to help said intern out? Pay it forward with a friendly smile? Or are you going to crush them underfoot, then enjoy listening to the lamentations of his or her women?
Brett Favre didn’t exactly tutor Aaron Rodgers. Joe Montana wasn’t concerned with helping Steve Young become all he could be. I covered the Washington Wizards when Michael Jordan made his creaky-kneed, mostly-forgotten comeback: his Airness was downright cruel to rookie Kwame Brown and had talented shooting guard Richard Hamilton shipped to Detroit for being sufficiently non-deferential. Why would Williams be any different?
Please note: this isn’t to disparage Williams. Not in the slightest. I would never, ever expect her to look out for Stephens – or anyone else on the WTA Tour, for that matter. Looking out for others isn’t what has made Williams one of the best players in history; disregarding others and looking out for No. 1 is. Williams is a giddy winner, a ungracious loser, a tenacious fighter, a stone-cold competitor. She always seemed far less pained to beat big sister Venus than the other way around, and that probably has something to do with why she’s had a better career. Regarding her relationship with Stephens, Serena basically said as much before her Australian Open loss:
“I would need a better definition of the word ‘mentor.’ It’s hard to be a real mentor when you’re still in competition.”
Why did people miss the obvious? Was it due to race? Gender? Wishful thinking? I truly don’t know. But after a decade-plus of covering sports – and plenty of time living in the world – I do know this: great people help others. Great champions help themselves.
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