After her brutal year, mental health is on Sloane Stephens’ mind, too

“I should have asked to go to my grandparents’ funeral,” she said. “It’s something that I’ll probably regret for the rest of my life.”

As Sloane Stephens plays in the French Open, the second Grand Slam event of the year, she has regrets about having competed at the first one.

“Looking back on it now, I should have asked to leave the bubble,” Stephens said Tuesday, referring to the mandatory 14-day quarantine for players in Melbourne before the Australian Open.

Stephens’ family had been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. Between Christmas and the Australian Open, which began in February, Stephens lost an aunt, a grandmother and a grandfather to Covid-19. She attended the funerals for her grandparents via teleconference from her hotel room on the other side of the world.

“I should have asked to go to my grandparents’ funeral,” she said. “I should have made those inquiries and seen if I could get out of the bubble and go home. I didn’t. It’s something that I’ll probably regret for the rest of my life, because I prioritised my tennis over things that were happening in my life.”

She added: “The only thing I can do now is move on and move forward. There’s nothing wrong with having a therapist or two and a grief counsellor and all of these things. I have to do what’s best for me and work on myself.”

Players’ mental health had been a focus for Stephens even before Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open citing mental health concerns.

“I think there definitely needs to be more open dialogue on what not only her but everyone on tour goes through,” Stephens said. “I think we don’t talk about it enough. I support her and I appreciate her speaking out because maybe that will help other players and other people speak out on how they’re feeling. Feelings are real, and we’re all human, so I hope she takes the time she needs.”

Stephens serves on the WTA Players’ Council. She has become a sounding board for the players.

“Players’ Council has really opened my eyes because I can kind of see the reality of a lot of other people’s situations,” she said. “It’s been enlightening and I think made me a better person to just open my eyes and see what’s going on around me, and not being so self-centered and focused on myself.”

Stephens spoke about Osaka with empathy.

“I have just read a lot of things that were just unkind and very insensitive, and I just feel like there’s no room for that,” she said. “There’s no room for kicking someone when they’re already down. I just don’t see that as a way to go forward, especially with someone on tour that we love and we adore and is really great for the game.”

Stephens has also worked on being kind to herself as her results have slipped. From a career high of No. 3 in 2018 on the strength of a runner-up finish at the French Open, a title at the Miami Open and a win at the 2017 US Open, Stephens is now ranked No. 59.

Her diminished ranking relegated her to playing in the qualifying rounds of the Italian Open last month; it was the first time she had needed to enter the qualifying rounds of any WTA tournament since 2012, when she was still a teenager.

“Covid. Death. Traumatic things happening in life, things that are out of my control,” Stephens said, summing up her year. “I kind of just had to manage, and I feel like I have just done the best I can.”

Stephens has been playing steadily better this year, despite instability in her team. After stopping work with longtime coach Kamau Murray, Stephens worked with Diego Moyano, a coach based in Florida, and active Barbadian player Darian King. Most recently, Stephens has worked with Francis Roig and Jordi Vilaró, coaches based in Barcelona, Spain. The partnership has been successful so far: After reaching the semifinals of a WTA tournament in Parma, Italy, last month, Stephens opened her French Open on Tuesday evening by rallying to beat Carla Suárez Navarro, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4.

Through the changes, patience has been a constant for Stephens, who will play ninth-seeded Karolina Pliskova in the second round Thursday.

“I’ve gone through a lot, and to have the expectation of ‘Oh, I’m going to get out there and kill it’? That’s not going to happen,” she told reporters in April.

But Stephens, whose US Open win in 2017 came in just her fourth tournament back from a foot injury, also knows how quickly fortunes in the sport can change.

“I think tennis is a very quick turnaround sport,” she said in April.

“It’s going to get better. No one stays in a rut for the rest of their life or the rest of their career. It’s just literally not possible. At some point the tables do turn, the tides turn, and you have to be ready for when that does happen.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Ben Rothenberg
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES

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