Sloane Stephens Reflects on Her 'Dark' Times, Says Athletes Could 'Do Better to Support Each Other'

"I've been in a place where it's been dark and it's been deep and it's been sad," Sloane Stephens, a Mercedes-Benz ambassador, tells PEOPLE of her own mental health struggles

Sloane Stephens
Sloane Stephens. Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

Sloane Stephens is going into the US Open mentally and physically prepared.

Ahead of the tournament's start on Monday, the 2017 champion spoke about the mental challenges she's faced in her sport and how she's been able to overcome them.

"I'm on the [Women's Tennis Association] Players' Council, so I think we see a lot of concerns and complaints — not complaints — but like what people think about issues that have happened or things that are currently happening. And I think that obviously, we can do better to support each other," Stephens told PEOPLE while promoting her sponsorship with Mercedes-Benz.

The athlete added, "I think getting through that and trying to navigate this process as a competitor, but also like as just a normal human being who has feelings and emotions… Yeah, it's been difficult. But I think everyone's tried hard and you offer your support where you can."

Sloane Stephens
Sloane Stephens. Minas Panagiotakis/Getty

Speaking to a group of reporters, she said she previously made decisions about her career based on what she thought the public reaction would be.

Her mindset, which was once due to fear of judgment, has since shifted. "They might talk about me for a few days and then it'll be on to something else," Stephens said of what she's learned over the years. "And kind of like realizing that my life, my choices and my decisions shouldn't be based on other people's feelings and how they interpret what they think what's happened."

The Mercedes-Benz ambassador also hit back at those who have criticized athletes for publicly discussing their mental health struggles.

"If you're struggling and you need to get it out, why would you just sit and wallow? Maybe there's someone else that can help you, maybe there's someone that you can talk to, maybe there's someone that has gone through the same thing and can offer you advice and support and whatever that may be," Stephens said.

Sloane Stephens
Sloane Stephens. Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire via Getty

Speaking of her own personal struggles, Stephens shared, "I've been in a place where it's been dark and it's been deep and it's been sad. I'm like, 'I need to get out of that place.' But you know you're stuck there if you don't talk to anyone and no one knows what you're going through."

The tennis champion continued, "I think that younger athletes are not told enough that 'It's okay to be sad, it's okay to be happy, it's okay to show your emotion.' And no one I feel like in the sports industry is comforting in that. It's always like 'This decision, this moment it's going to affect you for the rest of your life.' That's the type of pressure people feel and they pretend to be okay. You end up in a space or a position where you just don't feel good and you don't feel good mentally and you don't feel good physically. Then you can't perform."

Naomi Osaka recently admitted that for a while she felt "ungrateful" for not feeling as though being a competitor at this elite level was "an accomplishment" if she wasn't winning. And Stephens told PEOPLE it's especially difficult to manage your highs and lows due to the strenuous tennis season, adding that "of course" she's felt that same way during points of her career.

"I've been saying it for years that we needed to change the dynamic of how the tour is run and how these tournaments are played and how long we're playing," she said, explaining, "We play a season from January to November, which is like, unheard of. There's no break, there's no nothing."

The star added, "Sometimes when you win you don't even get to enjoy it and that's how you lose that joy and you lose that excitement and that fun because you're just, you win and okay, next week there's already another tournament, someone else is playing…."

While Stephens said she's grateful for her wins, her sponsors, her fans and her platform, it doesn't take away from the ups and downs.

"Your career goes by fast," she told PEOPLE. "And then on top of that, having to produce again in another week, that's hard."

The former Olympian shared, "I think everyone has their breaking point. And I think we can do a better job as a tour managing that. And then obviously a better job as just colleagues and humans just like supporting each other through very super stressful, high times."

Sloane Stephens
Sloane Stephens. Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

Heading into the US Open, which will run from Aug. 30 to Sept. 12 in Flushing, New York, Stephens told PEOPLE that she's "been playing a lot better, which is really nice."

Stephens also said she's not as focused on winning or losing because it's the first time fans are back in the stands since the pandemic and she's happy to experience that again.

"I think, at this point, everyone, like nobody has anything to lose. Like we'd just been in a pandemic. It's the first time we'll have fans. There'll be a lot of energy, the atmosphere will be great. And I think people will really look to take advantage of the situation," she told PEOPLE of her attitude going into the competition. "We're excited that now it's happening again. And we have fans again and we're able to have that feeling and feel that rush again and that atmosphere and it's exciting."

RELATED VIDEO: Grand Slam Leaders Pledge to Address Tennis Players' Mental Health Concerns, Commend Naomi Osaka

When it comes to her physical health, the former US Open champion said, "I've been doing just a lot of training, a lot of getting on the court, a lot of just like making sure I'm ready and prepared. My body's good. Taking care of it, doing lots of treatments, stretching, things that I need."

Stephens noted that doTERRA essential oils are also something that helps her get in the zone. "It's just something that's always been a part of my life since I was really young, honestly. And as I've gotten older, I've been able to experiment more with smells and my home," she said. "When people come in and say 'Oh it smells so good,' I'm like 'I know, I created that.' "

Other methods of self-care include cruising in her Mercedes — a car brand that connects her to her mom, her brother and her grandparents who died earlier this year due to COVID-19.

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Sloane Stephens
Sloane Stephens. Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

Stephens told PEOPLE that her top five karaoke songs to belt out in her G-Class car are "Como La Flor" by Selena, "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston, "Thank U, Next" by Ariana Grande, "Always Be My Baby" by Mariah Carey, and "Your Body" by Pretty Ricky.

In the future, she said she wants to jam out in the upcoming 2022 all-electric Mercedes-Benz EQS Sedan.

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