By Tumaini Carayol
(May 7, 2013) MADRID – As the traveling tennis circus rolled into Madrid, the tennis world was immediately consumed by shocking off-court happenings that left the actual tennis firmly in the shadows. The first alarm bells rang as a suspiciously scribbled magazine scan was uploaded into a small pocket of the internet during the dead of night. Slowly but surely, awareness of this mysterious magazine spread until, by morning, it had exploded into the mainstream of the tennis world and threatened to consume it whole.
This magazine in question was ‘ESPN: The Mag’, the scan was an interview in which young American hope Sloane Stephens candidly trash-talked Serena Williams and – though opinions on its contents were varied – the angry scribbles that graced the three featured pictures of Stephens presented a window into the widespread fury that greeted Stephens’ controversial comments.
Stephens’ quotes have long since been dissected and discussed. Here was someone who, for the best part of a year, could be seen constantly heaping praise on her countrywoman. The 20 year-old referred to Williams as a friend – her only friend on the WTA. Ahead of their Australian Open clash, Stephens even charmingly discussed a conversation they had exchanged prior, in which Williams jokingly suggested that she grunt. Though the narrative was blown out of proportion by a media that painted the Williams-Stephens relationship as a mentorship rather than simply two kindred spirits, both women stirred the pot with their own comments.
Then, with that fateful interview during Miami, Stephens drove a 50-ton lorry straight through her previous comments.
It is far from the first time Williams has been involved in the exchange of harsh comments. During the dawn of her career, verbal sparring with fellow players was almost her second job. The nadir, or perhaps peak of this off-court drama came at the 1999 US Open when Martina Hingis described Serena and her sister as having “big mouths.” Williams responded immediately, irreverently offering up one of the enduring quotes of a generation:
“She’s always been the type of person that just says things and she just speaks her mind,” she offered quietly. “I guess that has a little bit to do with not having a formal education
It seemed only natural that Williams would respond in a similar manner after Stephens’ comments became known. However, Williams’ experience has evidently taught her to choose her battles wisely. Rather than engaging her 20 year-old opponent in yet another war of words and finding herself the center of yet more drama, Williams offered a considerably more decisive retort. With a wide smile and comically innocent expression, the 15 time-Grand Slam champion replied:
“I don’t really know. I don’t have many thoughts. I’m a big Sloane Stephens fan and always have been. I’ve always said that I think she can be the best in the world. I’ll always continue to think that and always be rooting for her.
“So I really just always wish her ‑ and anyone, really, especially from America the best. We don’t have that many American players, so it’s always exciting to see so many young players doing so well.”
By the end of the day, Stephens had taken to twitter to apologize to Williams, referring to the world number one as “the GOAT” and disclosing that the pair had spoken via phone and cleared the air. Serena the peacemaker: a strange but fitting title.
— Sloane Stephens (@sloanetweets) May 7, 2013
Tumaini Carayol is in Madrid covering the Madrid Open for Tennis Panorama News. He is a contributing writer at On The Baseline, and writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault. Follow his tournament updates on @TennisNewsTPN and his personal twitter @TumCarayol.