For tennis star Sloane Stephens, life is more than just a series of games

Tennis has brought Sloane Stephens wealth, prestige and a jet-setting lifestyle. There are times, though, when she just wants to get away from it all

WORDS Phoebe Reilly
August 2018
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Photos by Jef Lipsky

Tennis loves a good story, and Sloane Stephens has consistently obliged. In the nine years since she turned pro, Stephens has famously defeated Serena Williams, won the U.S. Open, endured personal tragedy, achieved “power couple” status with her boyfriend—Toronto FC soccer player Jozy Altidore—and bounced back from a bad injury. 

 

Today, at a photo shoot in the Pacific Palisades, the No. 4-ranked player in women’s tennis is struggling with the California heat. “What happened to my air, guys?” she asks, striking an intimidating pose with her racquet. “I need Beyoncé wind.” Someone aims a fan in her direction. 

 

Three days ago, the 25-year-old had been in Paris, fighting for her second Grand Slam win in the grueling finals of the French Open. The occasion marked a career milestone for Stephens: She previously made it only as far as the fourth round of the tournament. But the match failed to go her way. After outmaneuvering No. 1 seed Simona Halep with her powerful groundstrokes and nimble baseline game, Stephens eventually handed Halep her first Grand Slam win. “I totally wanted to cry—I did cry,” she says. “If you play a sport for a living, you’re going to lose, and that’s just how it is.”

I’m speaking to Stephens over breakfast at a small, whimsically decorated café in West Los Angeles. Upon her arrival at the eatery, she immediately announces that she’d rather be sleeping. “I want to not leave the bed for, like, four days,” she says, taking a seat. “The last thing I wanted to do when I got back was wake up and do this interview.” She shrugs apologetically. “I just have to learn to balance my life.”

 

In the near future, any hopes for sleeping in are “not realistic”: After losing in the first round at Wimbledon in July, Stephens is returning to New York City for the U.S. Open, where she surprised the tennis world last year when she won her first Grand Slam as an unseeded player. “I’ll be the first to admit that the season is long,” she says. “It’s hard being away from home.” 

As disappointed as Stephens may have been about her loss to Halep, she did not let it show. Instead, she beamed her radiant, dimpled smile and mimed holding up the trophy to encourage the stunned Romanian victor to do the same. Afterwards, she told reporters, “The better player won the match. I’m glad she finally got her first Slam. It’s a beautiful thing.”

 

Since Serena Williams took a break from the sport last year to have a child, the field of women’s tennis has opened up dramatically. At press time, there had been seven consecutive different singles champions in major events. It truly is anybody’s game. “We had Serena dominate for so long, and she is a huge part of women’s tennis,” says Stephens, carefully spreading jam on her toast, “but it’s nice to see everyone’s winning—not just one person.”  

A moment later, she fumbles the toast and it lands jam-side down in her lap—on a napkin, sparing the multicolor leggings she picked up in France, which perfectly match her pink, blue and lemon-yellow Nikes. “Thank God,” she says. “That would have been bad.”

 

Another enduring truth about tennis: Stories about the sport favor either brash winners or sore losers. Stephens, who tends to be equally gracious in success or failure, has been criticized at times for lacking ambition and energy. “Everyone’s always, like, ‘You don’t show that you care,’” she says. “Is that because I’m not banging my racquet? Because I’m not yelling?” 

Kamau Murray, Stephens’ coach since 2015, chalks the criticism up to the fact that “sportswriters want to see the player implode and have a John McEnroe sort of experience.” (McEnroe himself has claimed that his famous tantrums were encouraged by his sponsors.) “Her approach to the game is very healthy,” Murray says. “She realizes, as a black female, there are a lot of girls in a worse-off position. That’s helped her move on.”

 

In fact, Stephens cares very much about her game. It’s just that her game is not the only thing she cares about. To some, this is a fatal flaw. She recalls a former player once saying, “She’ll never be great because she doesn’t have the drive. She’s interested in too many other things.” These things include her eponymous foundation, founded five years ago with the goal of using tennis to promote education and healthy decision-making (Stephens herself abstains from alcohol) among children in underserved communities. 

Stephens is also intent on maintaining her personal relationships. Between tournaments, she spends as much time as possible in Toronto, where Jozy Altidore is based. He was in the stands cheering nervously during the match against Halep. “I think people forget that we’re human, and everyone’s allowed to have a life,” she says. “You can’t wake up one day and look back, and be like, Dang, I should have married him. You know?” She looks up from her plate and puts it even more bluntly: “Sometimes tennis is just not fun.” 

 

This isn’t meant as a secret, but it feels like one. No one expects accountants to find tax season thrilling, but athletes, like actors and pop stars, are seen to be in such privileged positions that job satisfaction becomes more of a requirement than a perk. Tennis players, the thinking goes, should be enthralled simply by the smell of a freshly popped can of balls. 

 

Suddenly, Stephens taps my knee and widens her eyes—the universally recognized code for Famous Person Alert. An older man in a baseball cap sits down at a nearby table. In an attempt to be discreet, Stephens grabs her iPhone and flashes me a Google image result: Billy Crystal. “No,” I say. “Yes,” she replies with a laugh, pleased with her powers of observation. Billy Crystal, meanwhile, ignores both of us. 

 

Grandma, are you sitting on my Spanx?” 

Stephens is about to change into her next outfit for the photo shoot. She will post the image on Instagram as part of an effort to gain followers for her @sloanestephens account. Her grandparents, Noel and Gloria (92 and 87, respectively), along with her mother, Sybil Smith, have gathered on location to hang out with her. They’re a close family. Few people would endure this long, hot experience. Among other things, Gloria inspired Stephens’ love of cooking. “Everybody asks for Sloane’s apple pie,” says Smith, proudly. 

 

As for tennis, Stephens was introduced to the sport by her mother and stepfather, Sheldon Farrell, when she was nine. At the time, her family lived in Fresno, California, and there happened to be a club across the street. “I’m not so sure it was exactly what she wanted to do,” says Smith, laughing. “But I discovered Sloane had a gift.” (Smith had a gift of her own: In 1988, she became the first African-American female swimmer to be named First-Team Division I All-American.)

 

Soon, the family moved to Florida in order for Stephens to train more intensively. Then, when she was 14 and just shy of competing in her first professional match, her stepfather succumbed to cancer. Two years later, in 2009, she was at the U.S. Open when she learned that her biological father, John Stephens, a former NFL player with whom she had recently reconnected, had died in a car crash. 

 

“I did go through a phase when all that was happening of, ‘I don’t like tennis anymore,’” Stephens recalls. Her mom elaborates: “It was a really tough time in her life, and both losses were incredibly overwhelming. She had to really find that passion for tennis again and compartmentalize those feelings.”

 

But Stephens stuck with it, and soon found herself on the seesaw of sacrifice and reward. Instead of attending her prom, she played the Junior French Open. In 2013—when she was just 19—she beat Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals. It was a big upset, which led to a huge amount of coverage. But being heralded as the Second Coming of Serena wasn’t an entirely positive experience. “It was more stressful than anything,” says Stephens, who, at the time, threw a little shade at the tennis legend for being aloof and unsupportive. Now, she shrugs off the accomplishment altogether. “Literally anyone can beat anyone,” she says. “A lot has happened since then.”

 

Her coach compares that win to a spike in the stock market. “People sort of jumped the gun to create some excitement around a sport that’s always looking for excitement,” says Murray. “Serena losing to anybody, it becomes world news. That can sometimes cripple young players.” 

There were more headlines in 2016, after Stephens sustained a stress fracture in her left foot at the Rio Olympics. In January of 2017, she underwent surgery that left her on the sidelines for the first half of the year. When asked how she handled that setback, she smiles. “I was at home, hanging out, living my life, having the best time ever.” She also took online courses to finish her bachelor’s degree in communication studies. “Finally, I was at a point in my life where I didn’t have tennis.” 

 

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it was after 11 months of leading a normal life that Stephens—whose ranking in the meantime had plummeted to 957—returned to win her first Grand Slam and a check for $3.7 million. “I get how the social stuff makes you resent the sport, and one of the reasons for Sloane’s success is, from a scheduling perspective, we’ve been very thoughtful about making time for some of that,” says Murray. “I really value how important it is for a 25-year-old woman to be happy. Happy people win more matches.”

Women’s tennis has a reputation for being less chummy than men’s, but there’s no doubting the affection Stephens holds for Madison Keys. Last year, after Stephens defeated her friend in the U.S. Open, the pair shared an unprecedented 19-second hug at the net. During a recent tournament in Rome, they went out to dinner several times and picked out furniture for Keys’ new house. “Tennis can be very lonely,” Stephens says, “so it’s nice to have a friend to hang out with and talk about Restoration Hardware.” 

 

Of course, it’s still a competition: for prize money, rankings, sponsorships. “Men can separate [their feelings] really well,” Stephens says. “Girls are super competitive and there are so many things that come with it—fashion, beauty—that it’s very territorial. Not that the guys aren’t competing for the same thing, but I don’t think they care if they get a Tresemmé deal.” (Stephens’ current endorsements include Nike, Mercedes-Benz and Colgate.)

 

Maria Sharapova’s recent memoir is largely about her rivalry with Serena Williams, which only adds kindling to the notion that there’s cattiness afoot. “It’s not a rivalry,” Stephens says, rolling her eyes: Years ago, Sharapova beat Williams twice, but she has since lost to her 18 consecutive times while securing more lucrative endorsements. Now, Sharapova is back in tournaments after a 15-month suspension for doping. “I don’t say anything about it,” says Stephens, moving scrambled eggs around her plate. “It’s such a touchy subject.”

 

The next generation of players has been relatively free of the scandal and backbiting— cooked-up or otherwise—that has kept the sportswriters happy. In Stephens’ case, this may be because tennis isn’t the center of everything she does, and she sometimes asks herself, “What am I going to do when tennis is over?” 

 

When discussing the injury that removed her from the game in 2016, Stephens feels a trace of resentment. “I was out of sight, out of mind,” she says. She is currently preparing for her inevitable future away from the game, pursuing a business degree online. “I’d much rather be able to tell my kids, ‘Yeah, Mommy got a degree, Mommy did this.’ After tennis I’m going to—God willing—be a parent and run a business.” She shrugs. “Tennis careers are not that long.”  

 

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