June 2, 2010

The Ascent of Samantha Stosur

For those who don't regularly follow tennis, it might be hard to believe that Sam Stosur has been a staple on the pro Tour for more than a decade. The twenty-six year old Australian played her first qualifying rounds at her hometown Major back in 2000 and cracked the top one hundred about four years later.

While she started to have success on the doubles court and even rose to #1 in the standings, she was having a hard time by herself -- though she'd won a handful of titles on the ITF circuit she'd never won a WTA trophy, and when a viral illness sidelined her for the back half of 2007 she saw her ranking tumble. But Sam's a workhorse, and about a year ago she started to gain some traction and quietly became the best tennis player, man or woman, Down Under.

But it wasn't until Paris when she really began to hit her stride -- just barely seeded at her sixth appearance at Roland Garros, she knocked out a tough Francesca Schiavone in the first round and fourth-ranked Elena Dementieva in the third. It wasn't until the semifinals that eventual champ Svetlana Kuznetsova could figure her out -- and that not without losing a set.

Sam's showing vaulted her into the top twenty for the first time, but she still hadn't captured that maiden title. A couple big wins in Stanford and Los Angeles proved her run in France wasn't a fluke, but she continued to falter when playing for a title. It wasn't until October when she finally had her breakthrough, battling past top seed Caroline Wozniacki on her way to the Osaka title at nearly the last tournament of 2009. It took her a bit less time this year to earn the gold -- I watched the fourth seed in Charleston drub Vera Zvonareva in the finals at the Family Circle Cup.

And as impressive as that win was, Stosur was even more amazing today when she defied the odds and crushed balls past world #1 Serena Williams in the French Open quarterfinals. Though I had picked her as my favorite in the top part of the women's bracket, I was a bit nervous as she took the court. Somewhat surprisingly, Sam rushed off with the first set in about half an hour. She had a chance to serve for the match in the second, but was broken and eventually lost the tiebreak to Serena. A normal girl would've bowed under pressure and resigned herself to defeat -- but Stosur got even more tough, breaking Williams in the first game of the third. Though she allowed herself to get back on serve immediately, the Australian remained positive, ultimately creating two amazing points to break Serena at six-all. After another hour of play, she held on to earn only her second win over the American.

I said ten days ago that the woman who made it out of this part of the draw would be a favorite to win the title in Paris -- but I don't know that I believed it until today. Truth be told, I was a bit worried that fighting through players like Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova and, of course, Serena, would take a toll on the one who eventually emerged. But watching Sam play today, she's showing no signs of letting up. If beating two players with nineteen Slam titles between them isn't evidence enough, she leads the remaining contenders in aces, firing off fourteen in her second round match alone. She's won more than sixty percent of her first serves in all five of her matches and only committed twenty-four errors in her last match.

Next up for Sam is Jelena Jankovic, a woman she's only beaten once in their previous four meetings -- but that win came just over two months ago in Miami. If she makes her first Major final, she'll face either Elena Dementieva or Francesca Schiavone -- both players, you remember, she defeated last year in Paris. Given that line up, Stosur's chances to take home her first big trophy have never looked better.

And to have come from nothing just a year ago -- what a rise it would be!

No comments: