She Spoke Softly And Carried A Big Stick (by Matt)

If you didn’t catch the live broadcast of the 2011 United States Open women’s singles championship match on Sunday evening (or Monday morning in Dootsland, aka Australia), you surely have heard about the latest incident involving Serena Jameka Williams and a member of the officiating crew, two years removed from her unfortunate default against Kim Clijsters in the 2009 U.S. Open semifinals.

American television networks – sadly but predictably – are giving almost all of their airtime and “punditry” (such as it is) to the flap between Serena and chair umpire Eva Asderaki. American news outlets treat tennis as a sideshow (despite the presence of The Tennis Channel) and are hopelessly imprisoned by the view that biographical memes and longstanding narratives are what bring viewers to the sport. U.S. Open broadcaster CBS – just like former Wimbledon broadcaster NBC (with ESPN playing a lesser but still real role in perpetuating the problem) – thinks that running with familiar narratives makes for more compelling television than layered analysis of the Xs and Os of a tennis match. Anything American-centric only adds to what is perceived as ratings-generating television. None of this is surprising, but it remains unfortunate, because the real story from Sunday afternoon in a cloudy New York City was the woman who brushed aside Serena, 2 and 3 (not 7-6, 5-7, 6-4), to win her first major singles title.

I will say, straight up, that I predicted a 2 and 3 rout… for the 13-time major champion who was in search of a fourth U.S. Open crown and the completion of her remarkable recovery from an injury and recent (severe) health complications. Yes, there were reasons to think a close match was possible, but there was certainly no indication that Sam Stosur was ready to deliver an upset blowout of the best women’s tennis player since Steffi Graf.

In terms of women’s tennis upsets in a major final, the last result with this much shock value was probably Maria Sharapova’s beatdown of Serena as a 17-year-old at Wimbledon in 2004. That match, however, appeared at the time to herald the arrival of a player who was going to be around for a long time on the WTA Tour. This match also involved a player with a “7” in the ones digit of her age, but the tens digit was a “2” instead of a “1.”

Yes, 27-year-old Sam Stosur, after many years of toiling away at doubles, reached her second singles final at a major and her first at a hardcourt major, taking center stage in the bright lights of the big city. Your guest blogger did say Friday night that Stosur would be a factor for three or four more years in women’s tennis because of her supreme physical fitness, but the fact still remains that when you make a major final at age 27 and don’t yet have a championship to your name, it’s not the same as being a hyped teenager at 17 the way Sharapova once was.

Sam couldn’t have counted on return trips to Arthur Ashe Stadium in the future – hell, not just for a U.S. Open final, but even for a quarterfinal or semifinal match, given the scheduling idiocy of the United States Tennis Association at this 2011 tournament. Stosur needed to make this match count. Perhaps she wasn’t going to sniff Serena, but she at least had to leave New York with no regrets. There’s a pressure in that kind of situation which the young and (then-)liberated Sharapova simply did not feel in 2004, when she blasted away from the baseline and was impervious to the weight of the moment. You could have thought about this match in several different ways, but each approach would have led you to believe that, at the very least, Serena would make Stosur work long and hard.

Improbably, that never happened. What’s even more surprising is that this quick match – under 90 minutes long – was not due to anything Serena did. It was simply a product of Stosur’s sustained brilliance and virtuosity.

Yes, Stosur hasn’t been able to become a regular presence in the second week of majors – she’s never gotten to the quarterfinals in Australia or at Wimbledon – so it was easy to question the Australian’s chops heading into a battle with the preeminent player of the present day and age. More specifically, it was logical to think that Stosur might unfurl brief flights of excellence, but nothing that could be maintained for the duration against the ruling power in the sport.

It’s true that Stosur played well in her only previous major final, but Francesca Schiavone was even more marvelous in the 2010 French Open title match, and as a result, a deeply disappointed Sam reached only one quarterfinal in the following five majors. She rallied against a tough field to make this U.S. Open final, but really – who deserved more trust in this match? There was never any debate.

Now, there’s no debate about the fact that, despite only three singles titles to her name, Samantha Jane Stosur is an elite women’s tennis player. As one astute observer tweeted in the aftermath of this match, “Sam Stosur didn’t just beat Serena. She beat Pissed Off Serena. In New York City.”

2 and 3, I might add. 2 and 3.

This match’s flow and progression were easy to identify: Stosur might be a complicated person, but she plays a simple game. One of the beautiful aspects of watching sports is precisely that their known complexity melts into simplicity when an athlete or group of athletes is able to attain the rarefied air of excellence. Stosur danced around the court with the snappy, alert footwork that is essential to crisp ballstriking in tennis. She bludgeoned her powerful forehand and she mixed in heavy topspin, generating considerable depth on a regular basis. Stosur’s backhand held up well, and her serve won her several cheap points in key situations. Serena, who has passed so many tests before in this situation, was perhaps a little too edgy, a reasonable occurrence given the fact that her tennis career stood in limbo several months ago. However, few experts felt that Stosur could take advantage of any lapses Serena might offer. Stosur’s lack of major-tournament consistency pointed to a match in which Serena would be the more opportunistic player.

That piece of conventional wisdom was turned on its head in this match, and although Serena’s dispute with the chair umpire early in the second set represented the emotional centerpiece of the competition, the true turning point – the moment when Samantha Jane Stosur announced that she was ready to claim her moment in history – came several minutes later.

The point penalty assessed by Asderaki in the chair came in the first game of the second set. The incident gave Stosur a 1-0 lead after she had already bagged the first set by an authoritative 6-2 score, but the benefit of one game seemed to pale in comparison to the drawback of encountering a roused Serena and an awakened New York crowd, which was outraged by Asderaki’s decision. When Stosur was broken for 1-all, the crowd’s energy and Serena’s determination grew exponentially. It was hard to think, at that point in time, that Stosur would be able to survive the oncoming avalanche of crowd-fueled Serena power. When Serena held for 2-1 and then gained 15-40 on Stosur’s serve in the fourth game of the second set, the community of tennis fans and pundits was waiting for what felt like the inevitable Serena tsunami of winners and aces, en route to the kind of three-set victory that the younger Williams sister has produced so many times before.

But then a funny thing happened: Sam Stosur wouldn’t let the avalanche unfold. She stopped it cold with the five best and most important points of her life as a professional singles player.

Down 15-40 and 1-2 in the second set, Stosur thumped an ace for 30-40 and then took the initiative with an early-point forehand to level to deuce. Both women traded spectacular points of at least 14 strokes to bring about a second deuce, but Stosur then used her forehand and her serve to hold for 2-all. Nothing about Stosur’s history and everything about Serena’s history suggested that the second set was going to be 3-1 after four games. When Stosur held for 2-all, Serena’s brief surge of emotion receded; so did her last best chance for victory.

After both women held for 3-all, Stosur found a final finishing kick in which she controlled rallies from the backcourt and drew a number of errors from Serena’s forehand side. Stosur broke for 4-3, held easily (at 15) for 5-3, and then – in perhaps the biggest upset of all – was able to break the 13-time major champion for the championship. Stosur never had to worry about toeing the service line at 5-4 and dealing with one-of-a-kind pressure. Stosur’s mind – as was blogged about on Friday – has historically become clouded with overthinking and doubt, but in this match, the Aussie veteran got out of her own way. One of the best athletes in tennis allowed her athleticism to do all the talking on an afternoon when Serena’s utterances gained too much media attention.

Stosur’s well-deserved yet unexpected championship is fitting in a very real sense: Sam’s career – like her tennis outfits – is and always has been quiet and understated. While other personalities gained far more attention and received main-court placements at this tournament, Stosur – playing in the Grandstand instead of Ashe Stadium – flew well under the radar and took care of business. The Ashe Stadium snubs were unfair and entirely avoidable, and yet they might have been the best things to happen to this shy and vulnerable person behind the tennis-playing mask. When the curtain was raised for the Big Show on Sunday against the greatest female player of the 21st century, it was as though Stosur had accumulated an inextinguishable supply of confidence and belief.

Yes, Serena was probably sluggish as a result of finishing her Saturday night semifinal at 11:30 p.m. local time (that was also an unfair and completely avoidable turn of events). However, the key to this match was always going to be Stosur’s ability to put up a fight against the supreme closer of women’s tennis over the past decade. Stosur didn’t just put up a fight; she landed haymakers from start to finish, highlighted by her bold escape at 1-2, 15-40, in the second set. Stosur’s game might be very different from the net-rushing game of Evonne Goolagong, the last Australian woman to win a major singles title (1980), but it flowed with the seamless movements that Goolagong used to advance Australia Fair when wooden racquets were still the rage and today’s power-baseline game wasn’t able to take flight. Stosur’s ability to finally reach the mountaintop for a tennis professional was the result of many factors, but toiling in quiet obscurity for the first six rounds of the tournament had to be more of a help than a hindrance.

Sam Stosur, the quiet woman who only needed to quiet her mind in order to reach the final frontier of professional achievement, has reached the mountaintop all singles players hope to find. Elena Dementieva, Marion Bartoli, Caroline Wozniacki, Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic, Vera Zvonareva, Victoria Azarenka, Nadia Petrova, and others have never been able to bathe in the bright light of fulfillment that surrounds Stosur right now. The fact that this moment has arrived late in Stosur’s career, at 27, will enable the Australian to appreciate this championship in ways no teenager could ever imagine.

Stosur typically said after her victory that she can’t believe this is real. If you want to play it that way, Sam, was ANYTHING real at this United States Open? You, Sam, played the longest U.S. Open women’s singles match (3 hours, 16 minutes) against Petrova in the third round. Then came a court reschedule from Ashe to the Grandstand, followed by the longest major-tournament tiebreak in WTA history in the fourth round against Maria Kirilenko. Then came another Ashe-to-Grandstand debacle in a major semifinal – how often does that happen? – followed by a decisive defeat of Serena Jameka Williams inside the world’s largest tennis stadium.

Yes, Sam. It’s real. You will still continue to speak softly and be your thoroughly gracious self, but you have also carried the biggest stick these past two weeks in New York. Let the world know that you have not only given a moment of greatness to the nation that forms such a core part of the history of tennis; you now have the major title which validates and affirms your singles career and all the hard yards that went into it.

That’s something worth shouting about from the top of the Empire State Building, even if your modesty – rooted in the noble Australian tennis ethos you so faithfully honor – will prevent you from doing as much.

That’s okay, then. Your fans and the global tennis community are now more convinced than ever of this simple truth: Your racquet will continue to do a lot of talking in the future, now that your long journey through the tennis wilderness is over. When you beat Serena Williams to hit the big time in New York City, you know just how far you’ve come.

– Matt



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About Matt Zemek

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

3 responses to “She Spoke Softly And Carried A Big Stick (by Matt)”

  1. Carol says :

    I watched the game until it was 1:1 in the second set (saw Serena’s diatribe with the umpire), then had to leave with the US fans cheering a fired up Serena. When I returned home to find that Stosur had won I was thrilled for her, and knew she must have played brilliant mind and physical games in the second set. I’m so pleased for Sam and Australia!

  2. lapinroyal says :

    Nice work!
    So true: As one astute observer tweeted in the aftermath of this match, “Sam Stosur didn’t just beat Serena. She beat Pissed Off Serena. In New York City.”

  3. Julie =) (@dootsiez) says :

    Fantastic read, just to state the obvious.

    Although I do think there is a similarity in Stosur and Sharapova’s wins over Serena – they were both heavy, *heavy* underdogs at two slams where Serena typically dominate. No one would’ve blamed them if they had lost. This probably gave Sam a bit of room to breathe and avoided the stage fright we saw last time at Roland Garros.

    Nice end to the tournament for an Aussie feeling a little blue in New York (FUCK YOU FEDERBEAR!).

    Vamos Rafa.
    xx doots

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