Sloane Stephens is learning
When I first spoke with Sloane Stephens about her relationship with Serena Williams, her voice lit up with joy. It was during last year's U.S. Open, just before she defeated Tatjana Malek in the second round. Back then Stephens said she and Williams talked all the time, and she referred to her as her "bestie."
Back then the two had never played against each other. Back then Stephens was an up-and-comer, not competition. But that was August 2012 BA -- Before Australia. Since then the two have played twice, once in Brisbane -- where Williams won in straight sets, but not before Stephens called Williams' on-the-court behavior "disrespectful" in a joking exchange with her coach -- and then of course the Open. Now -- it's on. Unfortunately it seems Stephens didn't get the memo until later.
"She's not said one word to me, not spoken to me, not said hi, not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia," Stephens said in an interview with ESPN The Magazine. "And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter." Speaking of Twitter, Stephens backpedaled a little via a tweet on Tuesday: "Guilty of being naive. Much respect 4 @serenawilliams , a champ & the GOAT. We spoke, we're good. ONWARD! #lifelessons"
Now, for misogynistic Neanderthals, the dustup between Stephens and Williams may be characterized as a catfight. But for anyone who truly understands what it takes to be the best, this is just business as usual.
Brett Favre did not take Aaron Rodgers under his wing once it was clear Rodgers was competition. Shoot, Favre didn't even hit Rodgers up immediately after he retired, probably because he was still contemplating coming back. Again. Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Roger Clemens ... none of those dudes would be described as warm and fuzzy toward the competition. But they all would be described as winners.
So one of the #lifelessons Stephens must learn in her pursuit of tennis immortality: More often than not, the bloodiest of battles happen long before you reach the stadium. No one outside of the inner circle of the two players knows for sure what was really said in the past 72 hours. We don't know whether Stephens truly does feel like "we're good" or if she's doing a little damage control after airing her dirty laundry. They are Fed Cup teammates, after all.
Still, I find it fitting that Stephens ended her mea culpa with #lifelessons. It reminds me of something Omar said in an episode of "The Wire" titled "Lessons": "Come at the king, you best not miss."
Stephens came at Williams, so if you like competition, you are praying these two heavy hitters face each other again real soon. There is a reason Williams is one of the most vicious killers in sports history. She is the kind of athlete who will never be satisfied with being an all-time great because she wants to be known as the all-time great. Her father and coach, Richard Williams, warned the world back in 1998 that "Serena will be the best on the WTA Tour," although it's hard to imagine even he knew that 15 years later the statement would still be true.
And because of that, Williams may address the Stephens dustup diplomatically ("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") but will try to crush her if she gets in the way.
That's what great competitors do, and the fact that Stephens felt slighted by Williams after the Australian Open should not be interpreted as the No. 1 player in the world is fake. Rather, she has no plans of vacating that spot. The two are compared because they have a lot in common, but only one can be No. 1. If Stephens wants the baton, she's going to have to snatch it, because Williams is not passing it down.