By Charles Bricker
Sloane Stephens was on court trying to win a qualifying match, mom was in the stands dealing with her intermittent match-day nerves and The Contract was back home in Los Angeles, safely tucked into a file – a solemn, unbreakable pact that is the foundation of what seems to be the perfect mother/daughter tennis relationship.
“It’s a signed, written document, three sentences long,” explained Sybil Smith, whose patient, involved-just-enough persona should be a role model for every tennis parent.
They drew up The Contract six years ago, when Stephens, then 11 and far from the major junior prospect she is today, was growing increasingly testy over her performances. Mom didn’t like what she was seeing.
“We agreed that she would try to have the best attitude she could and I agreed to support her, no matter what, and we both signed it,” said Smith. “One of these days we’re going to have it framed. We talk about it a lot, joke about it a lot.”
Sybil Smith smiled. “There are times,” she said, “when Sloane has to remind ME, ‘Remember, you’re the mom. Just be my mom and I’ll go to work.’ She’s the person who sets the tone in this relationship.”
On the opening day of qualifying Monday at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla., Stephens didn’t fare well, losing 6-1, 6-2 to Yung-Jan Chan of Taipei. But she was exemplary a week ago at Indian Wells, where she qualified, won a round and put up a very competitive fight in a 6-4, 7-5 loss to No. 14 ranked Vera Zvonareva.
It was a match that, even in defeat, was another step forward for Stephens, who turned 17 only last Saturday. Match by match, week by week, she has shown significant progress, reaching the semifinals of the French Open juniors and the quarters of the Wimbledon juniors in 2009, then turning pro this year.
She’s probably not going to storm the castle. If she reaches elite status in this game, it’s going to be with more of the same plodding success — one foxhole at a time. And mom will be there, standing behind their contract.
In a sense, this has been an easy sports parenting job for Sybil Smith, 43, whose multiple school records in the late 1980s established her as Boston University’s finest female swimmer and where she became the first black woman in NCAA history to be named a first team All America.
She’s got the blueprint for dealing with Sloane’s career. “My mom drove me every day 30 minutes each way to swimming practice when I was a kid and then drove me all over the state of California for meets. She didn’t know much about swimming, but she always said the right thing to me. She loved me. She was my parent,” said Smith.
“There is no doubt that I’ve learned a lot from my mother about what kind of sports parent I wanted to be, even though tennis is different. With tennis, you have one coach and one player instead of 20 kids in the pool swimming laps.”
But the basics are the same. Be involved enough to know what your kid is doing in practice, stay off the court and let the coaches do their work and be aware of what is going on around you with parents who are doing a poor job with their kids.
“Oh yes, we have big red flags that go up,” said Smith. “Sloane has seen all the things that can happen on tour and read the horror stories about tennis parents. She’s learned a lot about people and the politics of tennis. We know there are issues out there and let me tell you. . .she has her radar on.”
They’re different personalities. Sybil Smith is a low decibel speaker and self-confessed introvert. Sloane is a joker with a near-perpetual happy face, though the past couple years have had brutally tragic moments. First, Smith’s second husband and father of her 11-year-old son, died of cancer. Then, late in 2009, Sloane’s father, former New England Patriots’ first-round draft pick John Stephens, ran his pickup truck off a Louisiana road and he was killed.
He and Sybil had divorced so long ago that Sloane never knew him until he drove up to a junior tournament in Texas for a face to face meeting in 2006. Smith politely declines to discuss much about her first husband, who had been twice arrested for rape in recent years. Still, she knew what this relationship meant to Sloane.
“They had a great first meeting,” said Smith. “And they maintained telephone communication from that point. John was a very charismatic personality. He did some great things and some not so great things. I just wanted to make sure Sloane knew her parent.
“She was devastated by his death. I helped her through the funeral and just sort of supported her grieving.” Her voice trailed off. “I’m not sure what to say about all that,” she concluded.
Last Friday, about 50 miles north of Key Biscayne, mother and daughter were reunited for a few days with Sloane’s long-time coaching guru, Nick Saviano, who was prepping her squaring her game away for the Sony Ericsson Open test.
“Nick is her foundation,” said Sybil. “He’s been there from the beginning and knows every nuance of her game, tactically and emotionally.” But Saviano, who has his own academy in South Florida, is not a traveling coach and the USTA dispatched former Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson up from Boca Raton, Fla., to squire Stephens through the qualifying and, hopefully, the main draw.
She’s a very substantial 5-foot-7 and appears capable of regularly blasting 100 mph serves. The ground game is solid and she’s working to be better around the net. There does not, however, appear to be any pressure, either self-imposed or from the outside.
“There’s no rush,” said Sybil Smith. “We never expected to get this far in the beginning and Sloane has always said, ‘I want to be the best person I can be, not necessarily the best tennis player in the world.’ ”
That’s probably in The Contract, too.
Charles Bricker can be reached at email@example.com