The perils of winning too young
A bright, young star, Sloane Stephens now struggling to build on success
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- If not for it being a different player, this year's Australian Open women's final four seemed as if it could have stolen a scene from the classic movie "Groundhog Day."
For the second consecutive time, the tourney saw a talented 19-year-old snatch international headlines as a surprise semifinalist. In 2013, that player was stylish American Sloane Stephens, who started the season ranked No. 38. In 2014, the honor fell to fresh-faced Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, who began this year ranked No. 32.
Without a doubt, the excitement when a relative newcomer performs to unexpectedly high standards delights absolutely everyone. The consequence: No one can get enough of the new "it" girl.
Former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, who has had a roller-coaster ride through her career, cautions that a meteoric rise stems from a somewhat flawed set of circumstances.
"You know, as a youngster when you're coming on the tour, sometimes it can be an advantage that the other players don't know your game so well -- and they don't take you seriously," Jankovic said at this week's Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. "Once you kind of make a breakthrough and you do a great result like they did in the semis of the Australia Open, people start to take notice, and start to analyze your game a lot [more] seriously."
Fellow players are not the only people watching Stephens and Bouchard carefully. The media and fans are also keeping close tabs on every step they take.
As for Stephens, it's not that her results have been horribly mediocre since her monumental 2013 Australian showing -- they've been a mixed bag of good and bad. What's most noticeable is how drastically her demeanor has changed. Once a funny, chatty, friendly young lady, she has turned almost overnight into someone who lacks confidence on the court and is conflicted off the court. To compensate, she has developed an overactive attitude for still too little achieved.
Stephens has had a few coaching changes and started working with Los Angeles-based Paul Annacone, a one-time mentor to Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, before the year began. Her return to the scene of her biggest career achievement to date went OK, with a fourth-round finish.
After Australia, Stephens took a pass on playing Fed Cup, explaining to U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez that she had a wrist injury. Fernandez was stunned to hear that Stephens was playing in the Qatar Total Open the next week. The Middle East trip didn't go well for 18th-ranked Stephens, who suffered back-to-back first-round defeats at Doha, Qatar, and Dubai.
When Stephens first faced the media after her loss in Dubai this week, there was no secret she preferred to be elsewhere and attempted to close down the conversation quickly. Realizing that tactic wasn't going to work, she relented and offered a few solid answers.
One question she pondered was whether she would've preferred to have flown a bit more under the radar for a little longer?
"I think either way it probably would have been the same," she said. "I think in all aspects, I think being obviously American, it's a much bigger deal because sports is really big in the U.S., and either way, I think the whole thing was a learning experience and it was what it was."
And what has she learned from the last year?
"Different life experiences, really," Stephens said. "It's been a long road. Last year was a really long year. It was tough towards the end, but I came through like a champ and I did pretty well. ... Actually, this year and last year, I'm in pretty much the same exact place I was last year. It's still building, and hopefully improving."
Many are still watching and waiting on Stephens to join the top 10. The talent is there, but the jury is still out on the approach. Meanwhile, although there's still uncertainty when it comes to Bouchard's overall reaction to early fame, at this juncture she seems to be staying level-headed. Part of this could be credited to her coach, Nick Saviano, who is definitely a pro at keeping his charges grounded.
When Bouchard left the Australian Open, she was asked to sum up her experience: "I feel like I belong in the top levels of the game. ... I feel I've been playing well and improving through the tournament. ... I want to build on that and practice and keep raising my level. For sure I'll walk away with confidence."
Coming off of the Australian Open, Bouchard helped Canada to a home Fed Cup World Group II win over Serbia before heading to the Middle East. In Doha, she lost in the first round to Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the same person she lost to in the first round of Sydney ahead of the Australian Open. In Dubai, despite owning a top-20 ranking, the draw was so top-heavy that Bouchard was relegated to play qualifying. Many would've have just gotten on the plane and flown home, but Bouchard chose to stay, humbly falling to Annika Beck of Germany in the third round of the qualifying.
One fellow player who knows about coming close to the top of the charts as a teen is Frenchwoman Alize Cornet, who enjoyed a career-high ranking of No. 11 when she was only 18 years old in February 2008. But she has yo-yoed around from there and is currently rekindling her form at No. 28 in the world.
At the ripe old age of 24 -- Cornet jokingly characterizes herself as "an old woman who gives advice to everyone" -- reflection has enabled her to view her early experiences with a clearer perspective.
Cornet's advice to Stephens and Bouchard is to not forget to relish the good times and to avoid getting too caught up in the bumps along the road.
"I had doubts a lot of times, but I still kept working because I knew I could do it," Cornet said.
"I think from my experience I didn't enjoy it enough," she said. "I got a very high ranking. I was winning a lot of matches, a lot of money. Everything was great, and I thought everything was normal. But now I think this is not the way I should have taken it because what happened was unbelievable, was extraordinary, and that's how I see it now."
One year apart on this comparable journey, Stephens and Bouchard are in a very different place on the tennis spectrum. How it will all play out from here is guesswork at best. But for now, many believe Bouchard could be the one more capable of dealing with the demands ahead.