Sam Stosur gags got another solid workout overnight.
‘Death, taxes and Stosur losing in round one’ was a popular line. It always is at the Australian Open.
Sure, there’s enough truth in the barbs to hurt. Stosur has lost in the Open’s first round eight times, including her last five starts at Melbourne Park. She lost her round one match even in 2012, after arriving home as the US Open champion.
The home failures disappointed Aussie fans. Then gradually, they turned Stosur into a punchline.
It is a grossly unfair fate. Who could possibly be more disappointed that Stosur herself, that she hasn’t managed to play her best tennis at home?
“I would have loved to have seen her do as well in Australia as she has done overseas for all of her career,” former Australian player Sam Groth said on Nine.
“She’s won a US Open, she’s made a final at Roland Garros, but just has never really put it together at home. For whatever reason, with the pressure she’s carried here, we haven’t seen her play her best tennis and we didn’t see it again last night.
“She would love to do better here and we would all love her to do better here as well.”
The pressure has always been Stosur’s nemesis. Dual Australian Open champion Jim Courier recently told Wide World of Sports that being an Aussie player during the tournament brings 20 times the pressure that American players cop during the US Open. Tennis fills a slot in the sporting landscape where it dominates the media narrative for two weeks and the scrutiny on local hopes is oppressive.
So it proved for Stosur. Her best Australian Open result is a pair of fourth rounds, the last of them a decade ago.
Stosur has otherwise made three French Open semis and the 2010 Roland Garros final (which she perhaps should have won), with a career-high singles ranking of world No.4. She is a former world No.1 doubles player and has won three of the four Slams, including last year’s Australian Open. She got a deserved shout-out from Ashleigh Barty straight after her fellow Aussie won the 2019 French Open.
Stosur has been a great player, a status that you can hang off one magnificent result alone: beating Serena Williams to win the US Open on the American legend’s home turf.
Wide World of Sports once compared Stosur’s defeat of Williams to taking down Mike Tyson in his prime. It wasn’t an entirely fair assessment – it’s more akin to beating Muhammad Ali, given that Serena is now widely regarded as the Greatest Of All Time.
That was Stosur’s peak, and few Australian athletes have an achievement to match it.
Lleyton Hewitt crushed Pete Sampras in the 2001 US Open final. However, the American icon retired after Flushing Meadows the following year, having added a 14th and final major at Flushing Meadows. He was vulnerable and near his end.
Williams won her next eight Grand Slam finals after losing to Stosur, who inflicted just her fourth defeat, and the American icon has won 10 more majors in total since that 2011 decider. She has made 16 Slam finals since Stosur silenced Arthur Ashe Stadium. A decade later, she is still a tennis colossus, boasting nine more Slams than Sampras and more than any of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
Perhaps these unprecedented legends have made us forget that most tennis players only reach a truly elite level for a few years. So it was with Stosur but unlike Mark Philippoussis, she managed to win a Slam.
Stosur is no longer the player who beat Serena. Once described as playing with the power of a man, the softly-spoken Aussie is now a 35-year-old WTA Tour veteran who is ranked world No.99.
The peanuts who mocked her for again losing in the first round of the Australian Open should note that Stosur banked $90,000 for making the main draw at Melbourne Park, for the 18th time. They can sit on their couches in front of the TV spilling chips on their guts and laugh at that wealthy, once-mighty athlete all they want, before waking up to their alarms to go and grind out another day of an unremarkable living.
Having earned more than $20 million prize money in her career, Stosur just made a decent year’s salary in less than two hours. Fair play.
The player who just beat Stosur, Caty McNally, is a rising young American half the Aussie’s age and with a better ranking. Groth reckons the current world No.64 is “going to be a young superstar, she’s a great athlete”.
“She loves playing and she still wants to be out here,” Groth said.
“I think as long as she wants to be out here, she’s done enough in her career that she deserves to call time when she wants to.”
If not for Stosur, Australian tennis would have endured an awfully long drought at the majors. Her US Open came nine years after Hewitt’s 2002 Wimbledon; the wait from Hewitt to Barty would have been 17 years, a historic slump.
Stosur isn’t playing to win Grand Slam singles titles any more. She’s playing because she’s still a decent player with a lingering passion for the game. She’s playing because she wants to.
Hewitt did the same thing long after he was a genuine force and became a beloved Australian athlete. With his ultra-competitive game, he was a neater fit with what Aussies tend to demand of their athletes. And of course, Hewitt was a man. Being a successful female athlete, even in this era, remains a lightning rod for idiotic criticism.
Hewitt lost the 2005 Open final to Marat Safin and after that, never went past the fourth round. He lost in round one four times, post-2005. He lost first round at Melbourne Park seven times in total, just one less than Stosur. Hewitt also lost in round one at his last three French Opens, where Stosur has shone.
One is a hero. One gets constantly diminished. Go figure.
Stosur doesn’t feel the pressure like she once did in Melbourne. Her time is over, with the Barty era in full swing. The veteran wants to play the Open again next year. Good for her.
“I want to keep playing, no doubt,” Stosur said.
“I guess my ranking is going to see where that allows me to keep playing.
“If I can win matches and do the things that I think I’m still capable of, then hopefully I’m still in the main draw of Grand Slams and having another shot.”
Like Hewitt, Stosur should be free to do whatever the hell she wants in the twilight of her career, critics be damned. She deserves to be remembered as someone who took on the Greatest Of All Time, and won.
For her to be remembered primarily as a figure of Australian Open mockery would be an utter disgrace.
*Stream every match and every court of the Australian Open on 9Now. 20 January – 2 February 2020.