An Interview With Sloane Stephens’ Coach Kamau Murray
When Sloane Stephens’ coach Kamau Murray told me he’s been with her for three years, I quipped, “That’s like 85 years for a tennis coach.” Then we talked about the incredible up-and-down tennis life of Stephens, who was off the court with a foot injury for 11 months, came back to win the US Open over Madison Keys, fell into a wretched slump in which she lost eight straight matches, then won the Miami Open. On clay, she lost in the first round in Stuttgart – and has now reached the French Open semis.
INSIDE TENNIS: Just a few years ago Sloane said it would be “absurd” if she didn’t win the French Open within a decade and now she’s into the semis.
KAMAU MURRAY: That’s actually a shocking thing. That’s so outside the Sloane that I know – overconfident predictions. She’s normally like, “Let’s just wait and see.”
IT: You don’t want to look ahead, but what would it mean for Sloane Stephens to win two of the last three Grand Slams.”
KM: That would be great, but I can’t even [see] past Thursday.
IT: What does it show that Sloane has gone through so much. She was hurt, then won the Open, lost eight straight times, then won Miami and is now into the semis here? After the Open she could have mailed it in, but she’s come back so strong.
KM: She’s resilient. She loves the game, she never panics. She stays with the process. She understands that even on days when you play well, the other person may play a little bit better. But if you just you just continue to do what you are supposed to, good things will happen. For the past three years, she’s done everything she’s been asked to do, from a training standpoint, from a work ethic standpoint, she’s done it.
When opportunities come up, when up get a good draw, good match-ups, she’s capitalized.
IT: Talk about the up and downs of tennis. She was in a cast for months then won the Open, then –
KM: I don’t think when she was down she was hurt. She enjoyed the time off. There wasn’t any time in her life that she hadn’t played tennis for eleven months. So she went to nail salons, to the movies, did TV, did philanthropy, worked with kids.
She kept herself busy, so she was never down. We kept in constant contact and she stayed close to the game. I went out there [to California] for a weekend to watch some TV, watch some tennis and to toss some balls while she was in a chair.
We didn’t make it a doomsday scenario. This was an opportunity to do some of the things that you never had to do because you are out playing. On tour you don’t get a huge chunk of time to work on things. We worked on things with her racket, contact points, seeing the balls, the finish, stabilizing shoulders, a lot of upper body stuff.
IT: It’s said Federer’s time off really helped him. Do you think Sloane’s time off helped her?
KM: Her time off wasn’t really time off, it was time to improve because she wasn’t in a bad spot before that. She won three titles in six months. I’m pretty proud about that.
IT: Sloane’s so cool, so confident even when she went for her 0-8 slump after the Open.
KM: She’s not a person or player that panics. Sure there are situations that potentially annoy her, but she and I are a lot alike which is why it has lasted for a fair bit of time, three years. I sit in the corner with my hood on and stay out of the way and she’s saying things, but she’s very calm. She’s not a big talker, as you know. Neither am I. She’s easy to be around. It’s a task to be away from my family and my Chicago, but she’s easy.
IT: Speaking of Chicago, at the Open you said Sloane going back to Chicago and tennis your academy put a lot of things in perspective for her.
KM: We were back there in the fall. We saw one of the doctors because she had a little knee injury. We went to a couple of the Bulls games and a couple of restaurants. It’s good for her to spend time with kids whether it in Chicago or California. We go back and forth across the country to make it easy for the both of us. It takes a little give and take.
IT: She barely survived in her third-round match against the Italian Camila Giorgi, narrowly winning 8-6 in the third.
KM: It was pure guts. If you look at the last two matches she played against Giorgi, they were pretty tough. Giorgi always plays her tough: feisty player, difficult ball, no one hits the ball like that. It’s really hard to find someone to get to practice for her and to prepare you for that. I thought we had a game plan for Giorgi, but all credit goes to Sloane for gutting that out – period.
IT: In the semis she’ll face Keys. Of course, Sloane had that huge win over Maddie at the Open. Sometimes it’s hard to get back-to-back wins or is it just the opposite and …
KM: I have no idea. I say ask me five minutes before the match.
IT: How would you compare Sloane’s game now with what it was when she won the Open?
KM: She’s definitely improved. She’s more confident in tough situations, having made it to the other side and getting the US Open win. Having been there before should give her some kind of calmness.
IT: Talk about that slump after the US Open [where she lost eight matches in a row.] Was that just human nature after that huge win or –
KM: Last year, she hadn’t won a match in 11 months. She’d been on her feet for only a few months. Then she goes to Toronto and Cincinnati and plays five matches apiece and plays seven matches at the US Open. That’s 17 matches in three and a half weeks and because she had a foot injury there was a lot of compensation on her knee. So she wasn’t 100 percent healthy. But she insisted playing through that in the fall because she’d been off and missed the game so much. When you play when you are not 100 percent you have questionable results.
The reason she was able to come back from that was because she knew she wasn’t 100 percent. She just said, “Let’s go, let’s play and stay close to the game and see what happens.” That’s why she didn’t overreact to the slump like the media overreacted.
IT: During the slump she showed a great sense of humor, telling the media to relax, don’t panic. So is that Sloane?
KM: Yeah, relax, don’t panic, cope, deal with it, life’s okay.
KM: Life’s not bad. You can still eat dinner tonight, okay. You kind of panic when you don’t know why things happen. When you know why things are, there is no reason to panic.
IT: The Laver Cup’s coming to Chicago. Is that important for your community?
KM: Absolutely. When Chicago was bidding for it, I helped to make sure the deal would go forward. I was sure to call [Mayor] Rahm [Emanuel]: “Hey Rahm, we got to make sure we get this thing.” That helped Rahm understand the need to have a cradle-to-grave program. There was a$15 million investment in my tennis facility. We are investing $100,000 a year in free school tennis programs. We made a million dollar improvement in the public courts. We had a US Open champion. So we think the Laver Cup is a great thing. We have all these things happening in the city for underserved youth. My kids will be ball kids. Last summer when Sloane was training in Chicago, the kids had no idea they were looking at a US Open champion. Now they will be looking at the greatest player of all time. It’s really a reflection on Chicago’s cradle-to-grave investment strategy. We invest into the community.
IT: Was Mayor Rahm into tennis?
KM: He and I have had a great relationship for the past four years. He is all about tennis now. His wife came to the US Open final.