Tennis

She won her first WTA singles match in 2003 and went on to become a doubles world No. 1 and US Open singles champion – by beating Serena Williams, no less. But Sam Stosur isn’t done yet. By Linda Pearce.

Tennis champion Sam Stosur

Sam Stosur during her Fed Cup final doubles decider with Ash Barty last month.
Credit: AAP Image / Richard Wainwright

Sam Stosur occasionally gets asked when she is retiring. More common, though, is another question. “What people say to me is like, ‘Oh, are you still playing?’ ” the reigning Australian Open doubles champion and WTA top-100 singles finisher for a remarkable 16th consecutive year says, laughing. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah! Like, have you not been hearing anything?’ ”

One reason, perhaps, is that one of this nation’s quieter sporting achievers has never made much noise. Indeed, a Google search of “Sam Stosur and controversy” leads first to her silence during the latest Margaret Court kerfuffle, and then to criticism of Channel Nine’s decision not to broadcast the trophy presentation following Stosur and Zhang Shuai’s high-rating finals triumph at Melbourne Park in January. Nick Kyrgios she ain’t.

Yet with the brilliant Ash Barty now at the top of the local – and global – game, the CV of her predecessor bears revisiting. Stosur’s career has mixed supreme longevity with successes headed by the monumental 2011 US Open upset of Serena Williams that ended a three-decade-long singles drought for Australian women in majors, plus three semis and one final at Roland Garros. And if it can be argued that the accolades have not always been commensurate with her results, then Stosur’s theory has been it may be because her best came neither at home nor at Wimbledon.

The former world No. 4 and four-time Olympian makes it clear she isn’t terribly bothered by it, and doesn’t want “to come across like a whinger”, but says she feels that opinions about her perceived inability to handle the pressures of playing at home – where the courts and balls have rarely been conducive to her game style – became accepted as fact despite rather flimsy evidence. “I sometimes think, ‘Where the hell has that come from?’ because on the flip side I’m like, ‘Well, I am mentally strong; I wouldn’t have been able to do all these things that I’ve done if I wasn’t’, but it always seems to be highlighted. And yes, it was really hard to play here that year after winning the US Open, but it’s just been the constant story since then … So that kind of annoys me because I don’t think it’s fair and I don’t think it’s true … I know what I’ve done and I know I’ve had great results, but because it hasn’t been here, it’s easily overlooked or overshadowed. But I’ve got a lot to be proud of.”

An awful lot, and Barty regularly acknowledges the standard set by Stosur as “the ultimate professional” for so many years. Among those she has inspired is another Queenslander, Kim Birrell, who was about 10 years old when she first met Stosur at the Queens Park tennis centre in Southport that is now run by Birrell’s parents. Bicep envy has been one constant, Birrell concedes with a smile. But so has Stosur’s willingness to hit and chat during her pre-season visits back home on the Gold Coast, where that US Open final remains vivid in the memory of so many aspiring players now trying to emulate the 35-year-old’s deeds.

There is much admiration, too, from Fed Cup captain Alicia Molik, who was impressed but not surprised by her friend and former teammate’s attitude in difficult times this year when her singles ranking dipped to 139th before her run to the Guangzhou final in September. “It’s a testament to Sam’s character to keep getting herself up and her body right, and it takes a pretty amazing individual to be so resilient through all those ups and downs,” says Molik, a one-time world No. 8. “… She’s so incredibly positive and upbeat and I really admire that Sam is still trying to get more out of herself every day. There’s not many athletes like that. At all.”

Molik believes any underappreciation for Stosur’s deeds has come from one-month-a-year Australian tennis watchers who can be “really harsh sport judges” when the expected wins fail to flow, and also from critics in the media. The numbers: no better than the fourth round in singles in 17 visits to Melbourne Park, and just four singles matches won in the past eight. “It’s tough on her that over all these years she probably hasn’t had the Australian Open that she deserved or wished for, in terms of her results, and maybe it would have been different if it was that way. But, jeez, I’d take Sam’s wins and credentials any day,” says Molik. “Knowing Sam since she was eight or nine, I think she … has squeezed absolutely every single ounce of talent out of herself, and the fact she can call herself a grand slam champion is just phenomenal.”

While events in Guangzhou provided a welcome reprieve after more than two years between singles finals, Stosur admits that as her results have declined – not coincidentally after suffering a stress fracture in her playing hand at the 2017 French Open – her attitude and goals have altered. As a child, all she wanted was a grand slam title. So with that box ticked in 2011, it was a subsequent coach, Josh Eagle, who encouraged a change of mindset. With pretty much everything possible already achieved, he said, just play for whatever reason you wish, “and make it all about that”, is how Stosur explains it. “Not think, ‘Oh, I won a slam and I really wanted to do that, but now I’m not, so I’m going to be disappointed.’ I still want to do well, because otherwise I wouldn’t do it, but [now] it’s a bit more broad, I guess.”

So which of her many achievements brings Stosur the most pride? The 16 years in the top 100 “is a pretty big one”, as is the 452-week uninterrupted stretch as the No. 1 Australian woman. Stosur believes longevity is proof of good decision-making. “It’s not based on just, ‘Okay, flash in the pan two years; okay, you could win this or do that.’ I’ve been able to sustain that for a really long time, which I’m obviously really proud of. And it goes without saying the US Open and winning tournaments and all of that.”

Throw in the No. 1 doubles ranking, and six grand slam titles across women’s and mixed doubles, and Stosur has clearly enjoyed the view from the top of the mountain. As to how it looks now she is over the other side, the reply is a smiling, “Well, it’s still good!” An extra element these days is that scheduling logistics can be complicated when her singles ranking (she’s currently world No. 98) and her doubles ranking (No. 12) qualify her for different tournaments. So is a Casey Dellacqua-style twilight as a doubles specialist a possibility? “Um… if you’d asked me, like, six years ago, I would have said, ‘No way!’ But I’m certainly open to it. If I still want to travel and do all that, then yeah, why not? Because it doesn’t matter whether I win a doubles or a singles match, I still get the same joy in being on court and all of that stuff.”

While the crushing disappointment of the Fed Cup finals loss to France in Perth last month took some time to digest, with Stosur and Barty beaten in the decisive fifth rubber, an unexpected pick-me-up came in the form of the Spirit of Tennis Award at the Australian Tennis Awards, where Stosur’s accolade was warmly received. Court, who has won more major titles than any other player in history, was not there. Stosur – who later thanked her coaches, family and partner Liz in a heartfelt Instagram post – endorses Tennis Australia’s handling of the dilemma over how at this Australian Open to treat the 50th anniversary of Court’s calendar year grand slam. In short: acknowledge the champion’s on-court achievements, but condemn her hurtful homophobia. “I read the open letter and I think TA said it pretty well. What she achieved as a tennis player, nobody will ever take that away – it’s phenomenal, a massive place in history, not just in Australia but around the world. But [I] obviously do not agree with her views, as many others [don’t], so I can appreciate the tennis side of it, absolutely. Fifty years, celebrate that. But I’m not going to be supportive of anything else about it.”

Meanwhile, Stosur is quietly completing yet another pre-season ahead of Australian Open lead-up tournaments in Brisbane and Hobart, unsure what post-retirement life will look like when it eventually comes. A full-time coaching role holds little immediate appeal for someone who has spent so much time on the road, although her enduring love for tennis will keep her involved in some capacity. On a personal note, real estate – “I’m obsessed with looking at property!” – is a passion for the winner of more than $US18.9 million in official prize money, while time spent on the WTA Players’ Council has given her a taste for the administrative side of sport, despite the “scary” thought of any return to study that a new career may entail.

But, clearly, the old one has earned a high distinction as it continues into a 20th year on tour, this time alongside her new(ish) coach and old friend Rennae Stubbs. So for anyone wondering: yes, Sam Stosur is still playing, and she doesn’t plan to stop until she’s ready.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 21, 2019 as "Sam, I am". Subscribe here.

Linda Pearce
is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, based in Melbourne.

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