Wherever she goes in Europe this spring and summer, Sloane Stephens needs to pretend to herself that she's still playing in America. To somehow trick herself into thinking she's feeding off the energy of an American crowd who are pulling for her. After taking her first Grand Slam title at last year's US Open, Stephens had struggled for form outside the United States, but then last week she won Miami for the second biggest title of her career. Her record while playing in the US this past year is just outstanding.
Clearly, it's a mental thing, and she likes the support she gets when playing in the States. But now, with the European clay-court and grass-court seasons to come, she has to find a way of getting fired-up when the crowd's a little nonchalant or even pulling for her opponent. She needs to think to herself that she's out there playing the sport she loves. She should want to show the world how she can play even when the crowd isn't pulling for her. I would like to see Stephens working just as hard, mentally and physically, when she's across the pond, and I'm expecting her to do just that, to do well when she's outside America.
I think this American thing will soon be in the past. I don't think she's just going to go into hibernation and then wake up again when she comes back to the States in the summer. She's seen how well she can play when she puts her mind to it. Plus, and this is a big plus, her game transfers well on to anything. She's one of those players who can play in the same way on any surface. That's why I'm expecting good things from Stephens, even when she's playing outside America.
Like every other tennis fan, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we'll soon get to see Victoria Azarenka competing on a regular basis again. She was packing a punch in Miami, getting better and better with every match on her way to the semifinals, and that was great to see, but now she's in limbo again, not knowing when her next tournament will be.
Obviously none of us can truly relate to what Azarenka is going through so publicly with her custody battle, which is restricting her travel. It's a unique situation that's very unfortunate.
In some ways, it would be easier for her to handle if she were rehabbing after an injury as at least then she would have a clear goal in mind and she would have a pretty clear idea when she could make a full return to competition. Whether you're coming back after a month or a year, you have that schedule or timetable, and the situation is kind of in your control. But with this situation, she's in limbo.
While this is unresolved, it's going to be very hard on Azarenka. She can do all the training she wants, because she doesn't have an injury holding her back, but she doesn't really know what she's training for. She's going to be thinking: "Am I going to be playing the French Open or not?" It reminds me a little of the situation I was in when I didn't know whether the Czech federation was going to allow me out of the country to play. That's why I left the country as I couldn't see how I could deal with that indefinitely....
So emotionally, it must be draining. Not knowing when you're going to compete again is one of the toughest situations for an athlete to find herself in. When Vika is actually playing, tennis can be an escape.
In some ways, when Azarenka's actually on the court competing, the pressure is probably off slightly. But not knowing when you're going to play again, that must be so difficult to wrap your head around.
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This article was first seen on www.wtatennis.com.