Sloane Stephens grew up surrounded by dead bodies. Her extended family owns a funeral home, so her formative years were spent in freezers filled with corpses, dressing bodies for funerals and driving the family hearses. She is banned from greeting mourners because she once cried in front of a group of them. She gleefully lists cremation and embalming as her interests. And, yes, she knows that she is strange.
When I asked the 2017 US Open champion earlier this year about living with death, her answer reflected her tendency to tackle serious subjects with irreverence: “A lot of people are scared of dead bodies but you can’t be scared!” she said. “They’re like the only thing you shouldn’t be scared of because they can’t do anything to you. You should be scared of the people walking around because you don’t know what’s gonna happen, right?”
Death is on her mind as we converge in the corner of the bustling player lounge at the Madrid Open in early May. This time, Stephens is breathlessly discussing how a friend’s dance with death affected her own career. Again, she peppers a grim story with self-deprecating punchlines and ample cursing.
Stephens was awake at 3am one morning in January 2017 when her close friend, the NBA star Quincy Pondexter, called her from New York complaining of illness. Stephens leapt into action: she alerted his sister and convinced Pondexter to go to hospital. The next time they spoke, he had been diagnosed with MRSA, was hooked up to an IV drip and was fighting for his life.
“He went to the hospital, he was in quarantine and they were like: ‘He’s gonna die’. And I was like ‘Wait, what?’” says Stephens. “I’d never experienced someone being sick like that, and someone so young. The panic that sets in … you’re like: ‘Oh my God, oh my God! What’s happening?’”
Stephens was recovering from surgery for a stress fracture on her left foot at the time, so she was stuck in LA. They spoke on FaceTime – from her recovery bed to his hospital ward – every day for three weeks. After five months of cursing her own bad luck and the pain in her foot, watching such a close friend stare down his mortality offered her a sobering outlook on her own problems.
“He’s about to die and I’m like: ‘Fuck! My foot!’ Who gives a fuck about your foot, Sloane?” says Stephens, laughing. “It definitely gave me perspective and that’s why when I started to play again. I was excited to be back and playing.”
Stephens’ stress fracture took her out of the game for 11 months, but the time out helped her mental state. She was tired of the grind of an “overwhelming sport”, of the insularity of traveling across continents just to flit between the hotel and tennis courts, and of a press corps desperate to crown her the next Serena Williams.
But after splitting with her coach Kamau Murray at the end of 2018, she started this year with a dire 6-6 record in the run up to her beloved clay season. “I was there but I wasn’t there. I was on the court physically but my mind wasn’t there,” she says.
She hired Sven Groeneveld, the former coach of Maria Sharapova. She says that he has brought her structure. She laughs as she talks about the challenges of playing without a coach:“[Life was] very unorganised without a coach,” she says. “It definitely gave me a break, not that I needed one, but it gave me a break to kind of just get things back in order, not only my life but my tennis life. I was able to figure some things out on my own, which I normally would have never had to do.”
full interview here