Pushed Aside And Loving It: The Samantha Stosur Story (by Matt)

Given that this blog is powered by indomitable Australian women who are going to kick ass over the next eight decades, it’s necessary to focus on the freshest story of the women’s tournament in the 2011 U.S. Open, one Samantha Jane Stosur.

One hastens to say that it’s necessary to celebrate this Summer Of Sam with a specific mindset – not in the way that household chores are necessary, but in the sense that giving full and honest expression to the soul is the fullest aim of human persons. This task of singing tennis psalms about Samantha – this redhead with a classically feminine name but a powerfully masculine game – is no burden, but a deeply joyful undertaking.

I can say this without too much hyperbole because I am a fan of Sam. (No, not as much as Svetlana Kuznetsova, but hey, since when does the Kooze remain on the radar screen anymore these days?) Stosur won my eternal gratitude and commanded my respect by staring down and stopping Serena Williams in the 2010 French Open quarterfinals. Yes, I can’t claim Stosur fandom as a lifelong badge of honor; I’m new to the Samantha Mantra and cannot say that I’ve known her since she began her professional career in 1999. I am a convert to the Church of Sam, and I freely acknowledge that religious converts can be obnoxious. Again, I don’t know the tennis life of Stosur from alpha to omega in the intimate way of a decades-long partisan. I freely acknowledge that my lack of long-term support is something I must own up to; I’m not the ideal Fan of Sam. What I can offer, however, is an appreciation of the values and virtues she brings to the sporting rectangle known as a tennis court.

From the moment she stunned Serena in Paris 15 months ago, I’ve kept an admiring eye on Queensland’s quality competitor, the female flag-bearer for the nation that has given so much to not just the history, but also the ethos, of tennis. Indeed, what has struck me about Stosur since I began to pay attention to her is that she is quintessentially Australian as a person, a person who happens to walk the earth in the form and flesh of a tennis player. Stosur is that quiet, surpassingly decent sportswoman who – like her Aussie predecessors of both genders – would play aggressive tennis between the painted white lines and then shake hands with an opponent, say “well played,” and go out for a beer afterwards. Stosur doesn’t get enmeshed in raging controversies (Justine Henin and Serena) or become a sideshow the way Caroline Wozniacki has. She plays quietly and – as Doots said of her – holds a lot of tenderness and fear behind those sunglasses she wears to day matches. What’s not to love about her as a tennis soul?

Now to the present moment before stepping back to assess Samantha Jane in fuller relief: Stosur has become the first woman from Australia since Wendy Turnbull in 1984 to play in the U.S. Open semifinals. Stosur carries Australia’s proud tennis legacy of achievement and sportsmanship with sometimes heavy shoulders, but those shoulders – which are as broad as a mountain range – have felt lighter over the past 12 days in New York. This surge to the final four and a date with — Caro… no, I mean Kim Cli…. no, who is it? Oh, yes, Mari… no, wait, huh, VENU… whuuuut? ANGELIQUE KERBER?! — has, from one angle, done much to reshape the way Stosur is perceived, but in a sport where change is such an abrupt and jarring constant, a deeper look suggests that maybe Sam shouldn’t be thought of in an entirely different manner.

The thing to realize for newbie followers of Sam is that she used to be the No. 1 doubles player in the world. She enjoyed a boatload of success with doubles stalwart Lisa Raymond, taking the 2005 U.S. Open and the 2006 French while also making the finals of the 2006 Aussie Open and the 2008 Wimbledon championships. Stosur made two more Wimby finals with Rennae Stubbs (2009) and, just this year, Sabine Lisicki. Being proficient in doubles? That’s an Aussie trait in the tennis world. Net play and textured multi-layer games represent the prevailing modus operandi Down Under. There’s plenty of throwback in Stosur, which is endlessly endearing to this jaded, cynical sportswriter who typically finds sport to be so much less romantic and enchanting in its (post-)modern forms.

Because Stosur owns a formidable doubles resume, her recent success in singles is that much more impressive… and a reflection of the fact that Stosur truly succeeds at the endeavors she fully pursues. Doubles was Sam’s meal ticket and her portal to elite competition, but then the singles siren song called, and she followed. The transition from doubles to singles as a point of emphasis makes Stosur’s overall singles resume a lot less empty. Bright red flashing lights surround her failure to make the quarters in singles at Australia and Wimbledon, but her doubles prosperity makes those resume gaps a lot smaller.

Then consider the simple fact that Stosur’s rise to singles prominence, while perhaps feeling so normal and natural, is relatively new. It wasn’t until June of 2010 that Stosur fully announced herself to the global tennis community as a legitimate threat, a force to be reckoned with. Since her triumph against Serena and her brave loss in the 2010 French finals to an unconscious Francesca Schiavone, Stosur has failed to make the second week in four of the next six majors. That’s a cringe-inducing track record; Samantha fans can’t look the other way and pretend that’s acceptable. However, what also needs to be said is that aside from Serena and – when healthy – Kim Clijsters, who in the women’s game IS a model of machine-like consistency?

Wozniacki? Nuh-uh… not at the majors, at any rate. Kvitova? Czeched out in the first round at this U.S. Open. Li Na was mounting a campaign in the first two majors of 2011, but then came Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Venus is unhealthy. Sabine Lisicki could become consistent, but she’s not there yet. Maria Sharapova put together a superb French-Wimby double, but didn’t make a strong impression on hardcourts. Vera Zvonareva’s strong 2010 has faded into less impressive (though not abysmal) results this year.

Women’s tennis isn’t enjoying its richest period, even though the WTA has eclipsed the whole of the ATP at the last two majors (it’s at the top where the ATP really brings the goods). Sam Stosur isn’t a unique casualty; she’s just one of several top-shelf talents to succumb to the pressure of a best-of-three-set structure at each and every tournament. While the men get to play best-of-five at the majors, helping the big guns to gain that much more of an advantage, Stosur and her colleagues on the WTA Tour don’t enjoy such a luxury. It’s not excuse-making; it’s a real-world amplification of her struggles and the erratic showings of every woman not named Serena or Kim in recent years.

It’s also a reason why Stosur’s run at this U.S. Open is so markedly praiseworthy.

When appreciating Sam’s journey through the draw in New York, please take note that while the bottom half has become a bomb-shelter bracket, Stosur has played a mixture of formidable foes and resolute opponents who haven’t made life very easy for her. No cupcakes have appeared in Sam’s section after round two. Nadia Petrova will always be a “Kuznetsova Lite,” a powerful and talented shotmaker who just can’t put it together between the ears. Maria Kirilenko is more of an overachiever, and she made Stosur fight for every scrap of success in an epic fourth-round firefight. The aforementioned Zvonareva, while having a terrible career record against Stosur, is still a two-time major finalist and a top-five player. There was nothing cheap about Sam’s victory in the quarterfinals.

Hold onto your hats, though – the story of Sam keeps getting better. Only now have we arrived at the most essential part of this Aussie’s excellent adventure in America.

The lingering, enduring virtue of tennis is to get out of one’s own way, a phrase coined a few years ago by longtime commentator Mary Carillo. Yes, other sports demand the same mental maneuvering, but team sports are far more dependent on physical prowess because the dynamic of a team removes the sole burden and responsibility from the individual. In tennis, the athlete’s emotions and resources are laid bare in the amphitheater – there’s no way to hide vulnerabilities or rely on anyone else for support… not in singles, at any rate. Tennis players – tested not just in terms of their concentration the way golfers are – are forced to keep their minds clear while also dealing with the screams of their own bodies, screams for a release from fatigue, heat, cramping, and the other physiological aspects of competition that have nothing to do with Xs and Os. Great tennis players make peace with their inner critic and their inner monitor, with the voice that judges and the voice that always (and necessarily) promotes physical preservation. Getting out of one’s own way is, to be more precise, an act of knowing the full extent of one’s talents and limits, and playing each match in accordance with them.

What has, to some extent, hurt Stosur’s reputation is that she is so markedly athletic. Her arms are enormous, her body chiseled, her full form the definition of a physical specimen. Stosur’s gifts jump from her racquet so evidently that any subpar performance in a major almost seems like a crime. It’s the somewhat reasonable yet not-fully-accurate box one can get trapped in when trying to size up Sam. There is a track record of mental weakness at work in Stosur’s results – that’s the reasonable part – but she’s much more of a battler than she’s given credit for.

Enter New York… not just this year, but last year as well.

You’ll recall that in 2010, Stosur staved off four match points against Elena Dementieva in a spellbinding 2-hour, 38-minute fourth-round match that ended at 1:36 a.m. in New York. Stosur served up some ONIONS late in the third set to make and then win the U.S. Open’s signature deathmatch, the final-set tiebreak. It is as though her return to New York has allowed Sam to access that same well of competitive conviction, that trust in her abilities which is synonymous with getting out of one’s own way.

Perhaps playing Russians not named Sharapova has helped her, too, but hey – if you’re going to knock Stosur for failing to advance at most majors, she damn well deserves the credit for beating Russians who can’t solve the puzzle of their own cluttered minds.

The Russian victim in the third round of this year’s U.S. Open was the aforementioned Petrova, who engaged Sam in a match that tested all the voices inside the Aussie’s head. Stosur led a set and 5-3, and she served for the match at 5-4. She got broken and lost the second set in a tiebreak. Following that failure, it would have been so easy for Stosur to go away, but she didn’t. She gutted out the third set and allowed her athleticism to take down the chunkier, more poorly conditioned Petrova in 3 hours and 16 minutes.

That match extracted a price from Stosur’s body, but in one of those subtle blessings of the draw and its meandering paths, Sam got a favorable opponent in the following round. Kirilenko is an overachiever relative to her abilities, which are packed inside a thin and compact frame that isn’t able to generate an overwhelming weight of shot from the ground. Moreover, Kirilenko suffered cramps near the end of her third-round match against America’s Christina McHale. A fitter player with more heft from the backcourt would have been the worst matchup for Stosur in round four. Playing Kirilenko was a distinct kiss from heaven.

And yet, for all the benefits of drawing Kirilenko, Stosur received a test that was almost as tough as the Petrova match and which – in some ways – exceeded it.

What made that classic weekend Grandstand war (there’s always one match on that court which lights up the Open on Labor Day weekend) so daunting for Sam is that she had the match won on multiple occasions in that epic 17-15 tiebreak, the longest in the history of major-tournament women’s tennis. Three times, Kirilenko challenged a call that would have given Stosur the match, and three times, Kirilenko’s challenge was correct. Three times, Stosur’s mind was opened to the possibility of a past-tense victory, only to have Hawkeye jolt her back to an unpleasant present moment. To make that particular – and forced – mental shift has to rank among the most difficult tasks a professional athlete will ever face. Stosur also had to bear the burden of a relatively easy miss on a down-the-line forehand passing shot at 13-12 on match point. When Kirilenko, playing brave and gutsy tennis, won the 32nd and final point of that breaker, Stosur – just 48 hours removed from her tank-spilling effort against Petrova – could have succumbed to the part of the brain which values preservation and, with good intentions, tries to guard against an overextension of the body.

Instead, Stosur played with an even more resolute demeanor. She buckled down and won the third, and moreover, she did so without winning tons of cheap points on serve. Stosur defended well, constructed points well, and ultimately prevailed by being the more consistent player. Stosur endured – and won because of said endurance – precisely when it would have been so easy to seek a route to victory that was easier, quicker, less taxing.

That’s mental toughness to a T.

Yes, a day of rain certainly helped Stosur recover, but again, there’s nothing cheap about taking down the No. 2 player in the world, Miss Zvonareva, with icy 3-and-3 efficiency. Stosur hasn’t had an easy draw in New York, but she’s also received some timely doses of fortune. For everyone on the women’s tour not named Serena or Clijsters, small doses of fortune guarantee nothing.

Samantha Stosur’s tennis career looks like a waste of talent… oh, wait – except for that sustained elite-level doubles excellence part… and her recent French Open record… and her last two U.S. Opens… and her ability to regularly dig out close matches against Russians… and her stamina over the past month, which includes a deep run in Canada before that 13-time major champion from the Williams family knocked her back.

At 27 years of age, Stosur owns the level of physical fitness that should keep her in the thick of the major-tournament title chase for at least three or four years. Meanwhile, her mind shows signs of getting out of its own way and allowing the athlete to be nothing other than an athlete.

Yes, Stosur has been pushed aside twice at this tournament by the clueless event organizers of the United States Tennis Association. Her fourth-rounder against Kirilenko was supposed to take place inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, and she could have taken the court at the very reasonable hour of 5 p.m. in the Big Apple, but got re-routed to the Grandstand. Now, in a cruel twist, Stosur has once again been forced to make an Ashe-to-Grandstand detour for her first U.S. Open semifinal against Angelique Kerber. The USTA should be playing the women’s semifinals first on Saturday since the final is Sunday afternoon. The men, playing their final on Monday, should naturally play their Saturday semifinals at night, but who said the USTA was fair or logical?

Samantha Jane Stosur is being pushed aside left and right. Her career – even by me – has been underestimated and underappreciated. (Mea maxima culpa.) Her quiet ways on the court have not given her game the attention it probably deserves, even though it’s a brand of tennis that’s far more attractive than anything Caroline Wozniacki does. Stosur gets shipped away from stadium courts for no good reason, being made to toil in continued comparative obscurity… even in a major semifinal, for heaven’s sake.

Yet, being pushed aside is exactly what needs to continue to happen to Sam Stosur. When she allows herself to be pushed aside, the voices can leave the brain and the athlete can take center stage.

You see, when you get pushed aside, it’s not about you – the ego, the voice – anymore. Self-forgetting is the portal to pure performance, to a liberated life in the present moment. Samantha Jane Stosur is immersed in this present moment, and that’s why she’s a huge favorite to win her second major semifinal on Saturday night in the cultural capital of the world.


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About Matt Zemek

Sportswriter, political writer, tennis commentator... and more.

4 responses to “Pushed Aside And Loving It: The Samantha Stosur Story (by Matt)”

  1. Pika says :

    So wonderful, Matt. You should have your own blog! (Forgive my ignorance if you do!!)

    I’ve also followed Sam ever since last year’s RG. Beating Justine and Serena is no small task, and yet, she did it. Earned my respect through and through. Although she’s had some disappointing results since then, I still believe that she’ll pull through one day.

  2. Freudo says :

    Thanks Matt, came here hoping her great win would bring out Doots but you did Sam proud, preparatory prophetic. Thanks

  3. Julie =) (@dootsiez) says :

    Mooooooooonpie!!! Tennistically-speaking, you’re totally Australian 😉

    *sends a million cyber-happydances*

    OI OI OI!!!!

  4. Shifty-Eyed Dog says :

    Wow, a blogger who can actually write. Nice piece. The Stosur Rocks! Her unpretentious, down-to-earth demeanor and grace are worth a dozen girly tennis divas.

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