After Sloane Stephens’ Grand Slam breakthrough victory, winning the 2017 US Open, Inside Tennis talked with Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou about Sloane’s rapid climb from No. 957 in the world to No. 17 in a little over a month, and the changes in her mental approach to the game that brought those results.
INSIDE TENNIS: How does an athlete go out in this big debut moment and show so much calm, like Sloane did? She was always in control.
PATRICK MOURATOGLOU: I think it’s a long process for her. She kind of said it. The fact that she’s been out of the court for [a] long [time] and not even knowing if she would be able to play again, all these things make you see differently, take distance from what’s happening, and you see things from a different angle. I know her coach [Kamau Murray] was working [with her]. She had everything except one thing – her body language on the court, her attitude, was not at the level to win a Slam.
The coach knew this was something she had to make progress in. Probably he used this moment when she was off of the court – because it’s always easier when you don’t have the stress of the competition. I’m not saying it’s easy, [but] it’s the right moment, when you have distance and less daily stress than when you have to compete. It’s a perfect moment to take advantage of.
I think it’s a great example, because there is also always positive and negative. When you have an injury like the one she had, it’s something so very, very negative. But if you can take advantage of it by using that time to come back with a different mindset, then it’s a completely winning situation. That’s what they really succeeded in. Because as soon as she came back she was a different player. She was playing the same tennis, but much more mentally solid, much more focused, [with a] much better attitude on the courts. We’ve seen even in this tournament several matches she would never have won [in the past]. Tennis-wise she would have won, but at some point here, mentally, she would have broken down. This is what makes the difference between the new Sloane and the old Sloane. Definitely, in the final, that’s also what made the difference.
It’s the process. When you make such a change in your attitude and it pays one day, one time, two times, three times, it reinforces it. You are even more conscious about how important it is, what it brings to you. In a way, her weakness became her biggest asset now.
IT: So, overcoming three match points against [Lucie] Safarova [in Toronto] was an important marker for her?
PM: Of course. There are a few matches that became references for her, because this new attitude made her win those matches. When you make a change that is painful for you, something that’s really difficult, but it pays, then you stick to it. That’s what she did. And now again, I think it’s part of her. I don’t see her play tomorrow and break down.
IT: The tour teaches in many ways.
PM: It teaches to people who want to learn. It teaches people who are able to look at themselves and say to themselves, “I screwed it,” or “I didn’t do the right thing.” Same attitude for the coaches. If the coach is able after every match a player loses to say, “It’s my responsibility. What did I do right? What did I do wrong? What could I have done better to get the win?” then you learn. Same process for the player. Not everybody learns. Most of the people don’t, actually, because they always find an excuse. They don’t really see the reality. They’re going to do the same thing in the same situation next time. She made a huge change. So you have to give a lot of credit to those guys. I respect him [Murray] as well. That’s one of the most difficult things to change in a player. I’m not saying he did everything, but he’s definitely a big part of the process, and she, of course, also. It’s made her change the way she was handling matches.
IT: His philosophy is total truth, that you have to speak truth to the player and tell it like it is.
PM: You have to speak smart. You don’t have to speak truth. Speaking truth is not smart. Say the right thing at the right time in order to get what you want from the player. That’s it.
ASSOCIATED PRESS [HOWARD FENDRICH]: As a coach, how do you look at Sloane in terms of potential and talent that she has moving forward? She’s 24 and now she has a Grand Slam title. Speaking not just as an analyst but as a coach of the game, how do you see her?
PM: I see her as a dangerous player, as a Grand Slam winner, as what she is. She has of course a lot of things in her game that brought her to become a Grand Slam winner, so she’s dangerous. Whoever is dangerous is dangerous to Serena, and my job is to make [Serena] the best she can [be]. When she’s the best she can [be] – she’s not every day of her life, but she is quite often – then you have to go get her.