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Aussie rules: Can Sam do it again?

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Originally published on: 03/01/12 10:23

It had been 31 years since an Australian woman had last won a Grand Slam singles title, but the manner in which Sam Stosur demolished Serena Williams in the last Grand Slam final (at the US Open) arguably made that well worthwhile for the army of fans eagerly anticipating their proud nation’s next female singles champion.

Rather than the media storm that erupted after Williams’ behaviour towards the umpire on a controversial evening, the 2011 Flushing Meadows final hopefully will be remembered for the quality of Stosur’s performance and the 27-year-old’s mental toughness in executing her gameplan to perfection in a pressure-cooker atmosphere.

The Australian’s maiden Grand Slam singles title has been the product of years of hard work, endless hours drilling on practice courts the world over and seasons spent building the belief that she can beat the best in the biggest arenas. Her story, put simply, is proof that hard work pays off.

Bouncing back from disappointment seems to be a running theme to the Queenslander’s career – first from the debilitating effects of Lyme disease and viral meningitis, the body-blow of failing to perform to her best in her first Grand Slam final in Paris against Francesca Schiavone in 2010 and then a worrying loss of form midway through the 2011 season.

Throughout it all, however, Stosur kept grafting – and believing that her dream of winning a major was possible. And on the evening of September 11 everything came together against one of the most successful and most intimidating players of all time.

Stosur, of course, has taken an unusual route to the top of women’s tennis. In 2006 she reached No.1 in the women’s doubles world rankings after combining with American Lisa Raymond to win the 2005 US Open and 2006 French Open trophies. Despite that level of success in her early twenties, though, she always craved more.

“I think the whole time I’ve been playing I wanted to be a good singles player and get the most out of myself on the singles court,” she reveals. “Obviously [reflecting on it] now, it was definitely the right decision to try and follow those dreams and those footsteps.”

Slowly but surely, Stosur began to climb the singles world rankings too until she was struck down by Lyme disease after being bitten by a deer tick midway through 2007. A further complication cropped up when she was diagnosed with viral meningitis during her recovery period, which meant the Aussie was missing from the WTA tour between September 2007 and May 2008, a very long ten months.

Stosur and her close-knit team around her kept visualising that she would bounce back from adversity, though, and one day crack the big-time on the singles court.

“I always tried to believe that it would be possible to come back from that, and I was very lucky that I did recover very quickly and get back on the court and do what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “So, if anything, it kind of made me open my eyes more that you don’t necessarily always get a second chance. I wanted to take every opportunity I had, and I have now been able to fulfil that.”

Once fully fit, the hard work Stosur was investing behind closed doors began to pay off. She won her first WTA singles title in Osaka in 2009, the same year she broke into the top five of the world singles list. She then added another in Charleston in April 2010, before enjoying – what was up to then – her best-ever fortnight when she beat Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic in successive matches on her way to the final of the French Open.

Waiting for her in that title decider was another surprise finalist, Italy’s Schiavone, and Stosur and her team knew she might never have a better chance of lifting a Grand Slam singles title against a player that on paper she was expected to beat. The dream turned into a nightmare, however, when it was Schiavone who rose to the occasion to leave Stosur with the uneasy feeling that she had frozen on the biggest
day of her life.

“Multiple people came up to me and said, ‘You’re gonna get another chance. You can come back and make it again,’” she remembers. “Of course, you want to believe that, but until it happens, you never know if that’s the case. It was extremely disappointing to obviously lose that match, but I think as time’s gone on I have been able to accept that Francesca played very, very well.”

What is perhaps even more impressive than her results that fortnight is the manner in which she brushed aside the disappointment, returning to her training base to improve her game and movement. Stosur and coach David Taylor targeted the backhand wing as the area that needed help and they set about ironing out any technical problems.

“You’ve always gotta work on all parts of your game,” Stosur explains. “I have put a lot of time into working on my backhand, feeling calmer on it, and making sure that technique on that shot is just as good, hopefully, as the rest of my game. It’s all part of just becoming a more complete player. I guess to be the best and to do some of that, you have to almost have everything.”

Ask Stosur about the influence fellow-Aussie Taylor has had on her career and the tributes flow freely. From her time spent sidelined during her illness to the dark days after that Schiavone defeat, Taylor has always been close by.

“I’ve got a great team around me, and they’re there through the thick and thin of my career,” she says. “I’ve got my group around me that are fully 100% behind me and believe in me… we always go for the same thing and work hard and do our best.”

After her US Open victory, Stosur revealed that Taylor had meticulously planned everything, even down to a last-minute present he handed over during their journey to Flushing Meadows to prepare for the final.

“He spoke about the match but then he gave me a good luck charm which he never, ever does – he gave me a little yellow New York taxi toy car,” Stosur revealed. “He had written something on it – ‘I play like I must’. That’s one phrase he always tries to repeat to me. It means in pressure moments, you have to play like you must, not how you feel.”

With a major trophy now on the mantelpiece, Stosur will go into future Grand Slams as a serious contender, not least at the next major on the calendar which is on home soil at Melbourne Park in January. Self-belief may prove to be the key to adding to her New York success, and having crushed Williams in her own backyard she has proved to herself that she has what it takes to win on the biggest stages.

“I had to believe I had a chance to win,” she says of that performance. “Things come into your mind. You can’t control what comes into your mind. But I guess you can control what you do with those thoughts. I just tried to keep playing each game, each point, and stick to my gameplan, stick to my guns, and not leave anything to chance. Fortunately, I was able to do that from start to finish.”

The world No.7 is hopeful that her experiences in the US will next help her cope under the Australian sun – and the potentially much more uncomfortable glare from her home country’s media spotlight.

“Hopefully I can handle it and learn from everything I’ve gone through over the past years to be able to handle it as best I can. I’d like to be able to continue this. I guess time will tell. For sure it will just reinstate that belief and confidence in myself.

‘Aussie rules’ featured in the November 2011 edition of tennishead magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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