Pressure on Stosur to deliver on promise

LINDA PEARCE
Last updated 08:19 14/01/2013
Sam Stosur
Reuters
HOME PRESSURE: Sam Stosur has never been able to perform to her potential at her home slam.

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This is not another story about Samantha Stosur's miserable start to summer, or her performance anxiety at home, or her failure to reach a quarter-final at Melbourne Park. Well, OK, perhaps it might be. But let's start with the story of a story; the autobiography of the absent Rafael Nadal.

Stosur has no plans to write her own book yet but the fact she was reading Rafa's last year prompted her long-time coach, David Taylor, to suggest she start jotting down some notes on her own life and career.

''He was like, 'You really should write all these things down, what's happened to you on tour, blah blah blah,and maybe one day do something','' Stosur says. ''But no plans yet. I haven't signed any deals.''

Which brings us to where Stosur's memoir might start. She settles on her first tennis lesson, when the Stosur family of five had moved to Adelaide after the Queensland floods of 1990 wiped out the family home and business on the Gold Coast.

''I remember that day very vividly, so when you look back and reflect on things it's obviously a key moment in my life to now get me to where I am,'' she says. ''It was at Memorial Drive in Adelaide and I was wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and one of those horrendous netball pleated skirts that we wear in Australia.

''And I cried beforehand because I didn't want to go and I was really scared. Mum and dad were like, 'You don't have to go, don't worry about it' and I was, 'No, I want to go'.

''I remember driving there with my window down, trying to drive all my tears away.

''But it was good, after all that. The coach went up to all the parents who were sitting there and said, 'Who owns this child here?' and mine were like, 'Oh god, what has she done?'.

''And he said, 'Oh, well, she probably should get private lessons, she's actually pretty good'.

''So that was my first lesson and it all kind of went from there.''

So now we're back here, to the start of another Australian Open - her 11th, at the age of 28 - but this one just two months after ankle surgery and with the high point of her 2011 US Open triumph contrasting devastatingly with the grand slam flop that followed: Stosur's first-round loss at Melbourne Park last January to Romanian Sorana Cirstea.

Understandably, she skipped town soon afterwards, retreating from the glare she found so difficult to handle. Stosur returns 12 months later as the ninth seed in a field dominated by the presence of Serena Williams, the superstar she humbled at Flushing Meadows 16 months ago.

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There is a theory in some circles that the performance was almost so remarkable as to be an aberration, for the closest she has come to a repeat final was the upset loss in the French Open semis last year to crafty Italian Sara Errani - then 24th in the world but now the respected world No.7.

''Very harsh'' is how multiple grand slam doubles champion Todd Woodbridge describes uncharitable suggestions of temporary overachievement.

''Let's be realistic: [she's had] three years in the top 10 and been a runner-up in the French, in the semis of the French,'' he says. ''But, yeah, we're a hard bunch in Australia and we want to see her do well at an Open. That's for sure, everyone does. But she can.

''Sam's performance depends on momentum but once she's over one hurdle, she's through to finals, sort of, that's the way she plays. I don't think it's so much to do with playing in Australia and pressure and all of that.

''It's just that this is more focus from the media and expectation on her. But it's no different to when she's in Paris, either, and I know with her it's a momentum game - she's just got to get it on her side and off she goes.''

Williams says she finds it hard to relate to the amount of pressure Stosur is facing.

''It's different in the States, it's not as much pressure,'' the Open favourite told Fairfax Media. ''I mean, when I started playing, Lindsay Davenport was No.1, there was a lot of Americans ... so, for me, there wasn't that pressure. American tennis has been doing great for years and years and years, so I can't possibly put myself in Sam's shoes.''

Second-ranked Maria Sharapova can, if only because the 2004 Wimbledon champion admits it took her several years to get into a winning position again.

''It's certainly not an easy one, especially after you experience that type of success, almost floating on clouds, and you feel like you're the greatest ever,'' says Sharapova, who also won majors in 2006, 2008 and last year.

''That takes a while to get back. Everyone is different. But, from my experience, I'm not sitting here and saying, 'I won Wimbledon, the next day I won the US Open'. I was far from it. So everything is a learning experience and I'm sure it is for her as well.''

Stosur says she wants to walk out for her opening match on Monday against Kai-Chen Chang feeling relaxed but eager, knowing that she can play well and aware that she has done so at times in the past, convinced that there is no reason to think that anything but success awaits.

''I think I'm obviously a very good player and I've just got to let that happen,'' she says.

Still, 12 months ago, Stosur forecast a better outcome, only to win one less lead-in match this year than last, her preparation shortened by the ankle operation.

After her first-round loss in Sydney, she spoke of feeling more comfortable and optimistic before the Open.

''Well, I'm not going to sit here and say, 'It's going to be all terrible again' but I think you go through lots of experiences and [in 2011] I had the US Open win - now I've dealt with a bit more adversity in another way with not being satisfied with the year that I've had and I think you can use that for all the motivation in the world to try and start off the year really well,'' Stosur says.

The trouble, sometimes, can be wanting it too much, wanting to play too well and when the ball does not come off the racquet quite so smoothly, or the feet are not quite moving, the tendency to overthink can creep in.

''You start to think, 'Oh, I've got to do this, I've got to do that'. Well, no, you've just got to stand up and hit the ball, really,'' Stosur says.

''There's a lot to be said for just going out there and playing and when I am playing my best you're in the zone, you're free and everything flows - and that's the ultimate feeling that you want to try and get to.''

There has been no loss of motivation since her breakthrough moment in New York - to the contrary, she believes she may be even harder on herself than before. And while she concedes that the gap between her best and worst remains too great, Stosur says there is no point expecting to play her best tennis each day and the best thing is to keep striving for improvement and consistency.

She knows, too, that she is judged by higher standards now.

''Oh, 100 per cent. I think it would be very difficult not to, no matter who you are,'' Stosur says. ''I think once you've come to that pinnacle of your sport, and winning and beating one of the greatest players ever in a grand slam final, it's pretty hard not to always think, 'OK, I was able to do that, I played great the whole two weeks, I played an unbelievable final, where's that gone?' You know you're capable of it and you want to do it every day but it's not easy.''

No, but it is all good fodder for the autobiography of the woman who was once the girl who cried all the way to that first lesson and has shed tears of joy and despair in the two decades since.

Does Stosur dare to imagine how her story might finish?

''I don't know,'' she says. ''I think you've got to wait till closer to the end of your career to end it the way you want to end it. And that's not even in sight yet. I'm not planning on going anywhere soon.''

- The Age

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