Tennis

There were no tantrums or histrionics, no blame games or brattishness in Sam Stosur’s tennis career. Nor was enough credit given to a genuine champion, both on and off the court. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Sam Stosur’s legacy of grace

A Caucasian woman in her thirties appears in white tennis gear holding a tennis racket and wearing a visor. She is smiling
Sam Stosur during practice ahead of the 2023 Australian Open.
Credit: Robert Prange / Getty Images

On the first day of the Australian Open this week, Nick Kyrgios called a press conference: he was withdrawing from the tournament with an injury. He’d missed a couple of warm-up competitions but then played an exhibition match against Novak Djokovic last week – principally for charity, but it was also an opportunity to test the knee. It failed.

“There’s a parameniscal cyst growing in his left meniscus, which is the result of a small tear in his lateral meniscus,” Kyrgios’s physio told the gathered media. “Even at that stage it was still worth persevering to see if we could do anything to get him back on court. To Nick’s credit, he did try everything, to the point that even last week he was having a procedure called a fenestration and drainage where they use a syringe to try and drain the cyst, which Nick has some pretty gruesome photos of.”

Kyrgios was coming in hot. Last year might have been his finest on the court, a Wimbledon final and, with Thanasi Kokkinakis, a surprise win in the men’s doubles at the Australian Open. The column inches he inspired were divided almost evenly between his tennis and his truculence. Last weekend, the bookie’s market had him as the fifth favourite to win his home grand slam.

But now it was over: “I always wanted to just do everything right and train right and tick every box, and just be ready for the Australian Open,” Kyrgios said.

“Obviously, this coming around is just bad timing. But that’s life. Injury is a part of the sport. I guess I can draw some inspiration from someone like Thanasi who has had a bunch of injuries and has bounced back.”

Two days before, 38-year-old Sam Stosur announced that this tournament would be her last. She had retired from singles a year before and continued in doubles. But no more after this.

Stosur’s record places her in the highest ranks of modern Australian players: she won one grand slam singles title at the US Open and was a French Open runner-up. There were nine singles titles in all, and 28 in doubles – four of those majors. At her best, Stosur was ranked fourth in the world in singles, and No. 1 in doubles. And, with two wins and one loss, she is one of only three women to have a winning head-to-head record in grand slams against the great Serena Williams.

This is history recorded in tranquillity. As impressive as that record is – and as respectfully invoked as it was by journalists this week – hers was a career that attracted more derision than acclaim. We in the media have short memories, but those with longer ones might have found the praise grating when compared with the volume of cruel headlines that met her often early departures from the local grand slam. “Early exit again for choker Stosur,” read one from a Fairfax paper in 2013.

Stosur had sinned by failing to meet the public’s expectations after her sensational defeat of Serena Williams in straight sets in the 2011 US Open final. That victory – which made her the first Australian woman to win a major singles title since Evonne Goolagong Cawley won Wimbledon in 1980 – was achieved against an infamously hostile Williams and an equally hostile crowd. “Her feathery backhand slices and ferocious forehands will not soon be forgotten,” The New York Times wrote after the match. Stosur was 27, the same age as Kyrgios now.

But in the years since that famous win, Stosur never made it beyond the third round of her home grand slam. For five consecutive years, up to and including 2020, she lost in the first. Publicly, Stosur went from being celebrated for her achievements to being scorned for not achieving more.

The media can be terribly possessive and irritable about “our” athletes’ fortunes.

In 2014, after a first-round loss in a WTA tournament in Portugal, she contemplated retirement. She would later say of that moment: “I think I was more worried about what I was feeling outside of that match. It was a really hard few days to think: ‘Geez is this all going away? Is this too hard; what have I gotta do?’ Because I feel like I’m trying my hardest and doing everything that I should be doing and it’s not coming off. So that was probably one of the hardest weeks, I’d say, of my career so far … I’d never thought that before and it was really confronting to ask yourself those questions.”

There was a poignancy to Stosur’s pained discovery that hard work wasn’t enough, nor precedent. Could talent just… evaporate? And who was she if it did? She sought the help of a sports psychologist and learnt breathing techniques to regulate the pressure she felt. She described to her psychologist the dark inner monologues that occurred on court, the doubts that “spiralled” into an irrational vortex.

While Stosur’s record should be celebrated, we might also remark upon her grace. Despite great pressure, and those pained inner monologues, Stosur never spat at the crowd, threatened officials or bullied opponents. She never sulked, blamed others, or bruised ballkids. There was no indulgent use of social media or trashed locker rooms. Though she had grounds to, she never chided or lectured the media.

Then there was Margaret Court, the tennis legend and now Christian minister, who has made a habit of speaking offensively about same-sex attraction. In a strange and garbled interview with a Christian radio station in 2017, Court suggested that homosexuality was a kind of social contagion. “Tennis is full of lesbians, because even when I was playing there was only a couple there, but those couple that led took young ones into parties and things,” she said. “And you know, what you get at the top is often what you’ll get right through that sport.”

Stosur, who is gay, said at the time she thought Court’s comments were “pretty crazy” but that she would not boycott the arena that bore Court’s name. Instead, with an admirable mix of grit and grace, she said: “I’m going to head down to the Australian Open when it rolls around next year and we’ll get on whatever court we have to play on.”

And so she did.

 

The tournament’s loss of Kyrgios is also the public’s. He played some thrilling, often brilliant tennis last year. But we might also reflect upon Stosur’s career, which was much better than we thought it was, and was conducted with an unsexy decency. She had no interest in publicly dramatising her own personal conflicts, the swirl of success and failure, ambition and doubt. She came to be defined in the negative – for the things she didn’t achieve, rather than the things she did. Perhaps, in retirement, there’ll be a revision.

After Stosur announced the end, the tributes came. Rennae Stubbs, her former coach and doubles partner, wrote: “Sam, there isn’t a person on tour that could say a bad word about you. Your class, professionalism, dedication and love & respect for the sport, your fellow competitors and the people around you, are unmatched. There will be a huge void out there on this crazy tour without you but my god was it a good place when you were in it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 21, 2023 as "Going out gracefully".

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