It was a rather short homecoming for some of America’s top tennis players at this week’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. Both top U.S. seeds John Isner, who was a finalist at the event last year, and Sloane Stephens lost their opening round matches. But while they gave credit to their opponents, it was interesting to hear both mention how the weight of expectation and increased media demand for their time was also a factor in their early exits.
After her run to the semis of Melbourne that included an upset win over Serena Williams, Stephens became an overnight celebrity here in the U.S. But though Stephens certainly has an upbeat personality perfect for television, she later said she felt overwhelmed by all of the attention she got after the Australian Open that included an appearance on the Ellen Degeneres show — something she reiterated in her post-match press conference.
“It’s been fun, but all I want to do is play tennis.,” said Stephens who was upset by Urzsula Radwanska. “I don’t care about all this other stuff. I just want to be on the court, have fun, enjoy myself, play like how I played in Australia, and just do what I was doing before all this happened. I mean, definitely comes with the territory. But definitely just want to get out and have fun and just do what I was doing before. And, I mean, it is what it is. It’s definitely overwhelming. But like I said, I just want to play tennis.”
Isner, who now finds himself bearing the even heavier weight of being the face of U.S. men’s tennis after Andy Roddick’s retirement last year, said essentially the same thing. After gaining notoriety for his marathon match at Wimbledon versus Nicolas Mahut, Isner has struggled since in the early rounds of Majors and has publicly said he prefers playing in America more than anywhere else. But staying close to home has also proved challenging for Isner who admitted he’d rather not have the spotlight on him all the time.
“I just felt more comfortable early on in a tournament with necessarily the, I guess the light’s not on me all the time,” said Isner who lost to Lleyton Hewitt in three sets. “It’s a little bit tough. But, you know, I’d rather be in this position than not, but I don’t know. I know, I guess I have a little taste of how these guys always on stadium feel.”
Athletes, no matter their sport of choice, for the most part want to be athletes first and enjoy the perks of celebrity that come with doing well. But in today’s world where sports and entertainment have merged, it has become harder and harder for athletes, especially tennis players who do not have teammates to hide behind, to stay anonymous away from the courts. And in America, where the hunt to find and talk about anyone doing remotely well continues to escalate, it only means that players will have to deal with even more media requests off the court as they try to spend as much time on the practice courts improving their game.
But some U.S. players have the opposite problem in that they thrive being the focus of attention but haven’t backed it up with consistent results. 20-year-old Ryan Harrison, who is probably ready at least in his mind to be world No. 1 one day, has had a hard time of late winning tennis matches causing his ranking to plummet. Harrison has had rough draws in premiere events where he’s had to face one of the “big four” in an early round. But he seems to thrive on the exposure and the opportunity of playing in the biggest stadiums – even if it is in a losing cause as it was the other night when he faced the Spaniard Nadal.
“This match would be a good example of a match where I lost but it was still enjoyable,” Harrison said about playing Nadal on the main stadium. “Still loving the moment, loving the fact that I’m out there playing in a huge stadium against one of the best players ever. So just being in those situations and learning to not get so caught up in all the Xs and Os that you can’t really control. Typically what it comes down to is you put the work in on the practice court which you show up with on that day is what you got. Do your best with it, compete as hard as can you, and try to enjoy it because this is your job. Not many people get to play a sport as their job, so there isn’t much to complain about.”
In a nation where being No. 1, no matter what your profession, is considered the only worthy career goal to have, the current crop of U.S. players will have to find a way to either embrace or learn to handle the spotlight aimed on them. Champions such as Serena and Roddick grew up with the light on them early on in their careers and didn’t shy away from it. And it may be that having this innate acceptance of being front and center in their sport that could be just as important as having a natural winning shot in determining who will be the next great American superstar.
That person may arrive in two years, ten years or 20 years time, but whoever it is, they will be the ones who find a way to embrace the light of expectation and constant attention rather than fight living and playing under its steady glare.