Court of appeal article
Court of appeal
By Joanne Hawkins
January 14, 2007 12:00
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"YOU'VE just had Australia's number-one female tennis player, Samantha Stosur, in your cab," I tell my taxi driver after dropping off Stosur at her trainer's house.
The driver looks blank and says, “Samantha who? The only Australian tennis player I know is that Lleyton. Oh, and Mark Philippoussis, although hasn’t he retired?”
The cabbie could be forgiven for mentioning Hewitt and the player formerly known as the
Scud, as Australian women’s tennis hasn’t exactly set the world on fire over the last few years.
The nation’s hopes were briefly raised when Alicia Molik reached the world’s top 10 in 2005, only to have them dashed when she contracted an inner-ear infection that forced her off the court. (After a high profile twirl on Dancing with the Stars, she’s since made a comeback, although
her ranking is currently at 164).
And, of course, there was troubled talent Jelena Dokic, Australia’s one-time world junior number one, who, after a spell playing for Serbia, is now 586 in the world.
But, as the global tennis fraternity dust off their racquets for the start of the Australian Open tomorrow, there are those who feel that the less high-profile Stosur could actually be our next female tennis champion.
And, without wanting to pin the hopes of the nation on the poor girl, the signs are looking good.
Although she’s yet to win a major singles title, she amassed more prize money ($1,251,075, to be precise) than Hewitt last year, largely thanks to her success on the doubles court.
Since teaming up with American Lisa Raymond in mid-2005, she’s won more titles than Serena Williams has tennis outfits (well, almost), including the French and US Opens, and is now the joint world number one at doubles. Yes, that’s number one.
But let’s face it – singles success is what we really care about. And Stosur is quietly moving up the rankings there, too, finishing last year’s season in November by entering the top 30 – at 29 – for the first time.
Her talent is considered so promising that it’s prompted tennis commentators such as former Fed Cup captain John Alexander to declare Stosur a “future Wimbledon champion”.
Yet, despite being Australia’s last hope in the 2006 Australian Open (she was defeated by comeback queen Martina Hingis in the fourth round), the quietly spoken Stosur has remained fairly unknown to the public at large.
And she’s achieved her best results in a year that has seen her without a full-time coach, management or sponsorship deal.
Even Philippoussis, now languishing at number 114 in the world, and Molik retain clothing and shoe contracts.
But former coach and close friend Craig Morris says it’s only a matter of time before Stosur’s talent is acknowledged properly. “I hope she gets recognition in this country for what she has achieved at such a young age. We need to support her,” he says.
When Sunday Magazine met Stosur in December, however, the 22-year-old was trying to give herself a break from tennis.
Recently arrived back in Australia after a nine-month stint overseas on the tennis circuit (“I left the day after the Australian Open and didn’t get back until November 18,” she says), Stosur was relishing being back with her family on the Gold Coast, “hanging out with friends and going to the beach”.
She was so fed up with travelling that she initially declined to fly down to Sydney for this story, until Tennis Australia persuaded her that increasing her profile might not be such a bad thing.
Turning up at our shoot in board shorts and thongs, an initially shy Stosur is slightly embarrassed by the attention directed at her. “I’ll wear anything but, as I’m quite muscly, please don’t put me into any slinky dresses that make me look like a beast,” is her only request regarding the styling.
She admits she’s trying to keep her tennis shoes firmly on the ground.
“People saying I can win Wimbledon and stuff is flattering, but it can put pressure on you. It’s hard to look from where I am now and say, ‘Yes, I’m going to get to number one’ because it’s so far away. But it’s about taking those little steps to get to the big prize.”
Stosur dreamt of becoming a tennis champ ever since a neighbour gave her a tennis racquet as a Christmas present when she was eight.
As her parents, Tony and Dianne, worked all hours in their cafe, the young Samantha begged her
older brother, Daniel, to take her to the park after school so she could hit tennis balls. “Daniel would look after me a lot while my parents worked,” says Stosur.
“It was Daniel who told my parents that they should come and take a look at me playing and then they decided I should take some lessons and it all went from there, really.”
Her love of tennis was cemented further when she saw Monica Seles play Steffi Graf in the 1993 Australian Open final in Melbourne.
“I had the best day,” remembers Stosur. “I was wearing my tennis outfit and I just loved it. I got to watch my two favourite players; they were the best. Growing up, if I could be anything like them, that’s what I wanted to do.”
As Stosur slowly inched her way through the junior ranks, school took a back seat. “From Year Nine, I didn’t go to school a lot, to be honest,” she explains. “But I don’t regret it; tennis players are getting younger and younger and I’ve made the most of the opportunity I had at tennis. I can always study later, but it’s not like you can delay your sporting career.”
At 13, Stosur represented Australia for the first time in Jakarta before spending 10 weeks, aged just 15, playing in Europe as part of an Australian under 18s team.
“It was kind of hard because I was much younger than the other girls. I was calling home three times a day.”
Morris, who travelled with the junior team before becoming Stosur’s full-time coach until
July 2004, says Stosur’s talent stood out from an early age.
“From the first time I saw it, I thought her serve was always a major strength. And now she has one of the top two or three serves in the women’s game. She was always a strong girl,
who hit the ball like the men do, with heavy spin. Those key aspects stood out at a young age.”
Stosur continued to slog away, hitting ball after ball to work her way slowly up the ranks. She joined Australia’s Federation Cup team in 2003 and represented Australia in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
“I was blown away when I walked out for the opening ceremony,” she remembers.
Her breakthrough season came in 2005 when she started to make WTA Tour singles finals, broke into the top 50 in the world and won the Australian Open mixed doubles title with Scott Draper.
It almost sounds too easy, but everybody knows no one becomes an elite athlete without a hell of
a lot of work – and a few ups and downs along the way.
As her father, Tony, says: “Sam hasn’t had an easy road.”
Stosur admits living out of a suitcase on the tennis tour for months on end is tough. “Sometimes you do get lonely. Leaving (Australia) in January is always hard because you know you’re not going to get back for a while. This year was the longest I’ve ever spent away, and it was pretty tough, but you have to be able to deal with that.
“I miss my family and friends, and – this is going to sound dumb – Aussie things. When you don’t hang around with Aussies a lot, you realise that people don’t joke around as much as we do.”
She also had to deal with a wobbly patch on the court after a bust up with high-profile player-turned-coach Gigi Fernandez. The two suddenly parted company the day after Stosur’s final appearance in last year’s Australian Open, a match she calls the highlight of her career so far.
“I had a really good time out there, even though I lost. Playing on Centre Court in front of all those thousands of people cheering for me was a great feeling.”
But that elation soon disappeared when she decided to end her association with Fernandez, her coach of just five months.
Stosur says she is legally bound not to explain the reasons behind their split. “I’d love to be
able to tell you, but I can’t. We had a lot of issues.”
What she will admit is how the split affected her confidence. “When I played in (a tournament)
in Memphis a couple of weeks after the Australian Open, I was all over the place. I was a bit of a nutcase; things would happen on the court that really weren’t that bad but, because I had so much other stuff going on, it snowballed.
“But then I started to feel better about the way I was playing (again). And, eventually, the better results and good wins started to come.”
Stosur was obviously affected enough by her experience with Fernandez to not want to immediately sign up with another coach, forcing her to spend most of the year travelling by herself.
“The next time I do something on a full-time basis I want to make sure it’s the right thing. I guess I’m a little gun shy about it all (after Fernandez).”
Fed Cup captain David Taylor says he’s surprised Stosur did so well last year, given her coaching problems (she’s spending this month working with former Australian number one Nicole Bradtke).
“We should watch this space with Sam because good things are going to happen. No one wants to play Sam Stosur because she has a game that no (other girl) plays. I think Sam will do great things at the Australian and US Open – and Wimbledon, too.”
Talk to Stosur’s closest friends and colleagues and all remark on how laid-back she is. But could this be a disadvantage in her quest to get to the top?
Taylor says not. “Sam is very laid-back, very Australian. But underneath, she’s very ambitious and really wants to do well. I think her understanding of her ability is maturing and when she fully understands what she can do against the other girls, she’ll have more success. She’s just scratching the surface with what she can achieve.”
Morris says Stosur is well liked on the tour. “A lot of the players find Sam great to be around because she certainly isn’t a high-maintenance person; she’s someone who likes to have fun and is very dedicated to her profession.
“She’s often thinking of others and is happy to do anything to help people around her, which is a bit of a rarity in tennis. It’s usually all about the athlete, but there is something about her that is very well rounded and that’s what attracts people to her.”
Away from tennis, Stosur says she’s addicted to the movies (“I loved Little Miss Sunshine;
Toni Collette was so good in it,”) and Grey’s Anatomy, which she’s been downloading from iTunes.
She’s earned more than $2.5 million in her career so far but isn’t flash with her cash.
“It’s not like I have to have the fanciest car or shiniest, most diamond-encrusted jewellery.
I bought myself a new camera and my brother a car but I’m pretty down-to-earth. I like hanging out in my board shorts and thongs and going to the beach. That’s pretty much who I am.”
Women’s tennis has become increasingly fashion-conscious over the past few years, but Stosur
says bling isn’t her thing.
“Tennis is evolving that way and I’m not against it, but you’re certainly not going to see me wearing the massive diamond earrings that Venus or Serena wear on court, that’s for sure.”
And as for this year’s Australian Open, Stosur has high hopes that she’ll progress further than the fourth round this time.
“I’m really looking forward to it. It’s so exciting for Australian players that the first (major) tournament of the year is in Australia. To have the nation behind you – you really want to do well.”
Taylor says that the weight of a nation’s expectation doesn’t seem to be putting any pressure on Stosur.
“Sam actually plays her best tennis in Australia and has achieved her best results so far here. I think she thrives on the expectation and the crowd support. She is a very dangerous opponent who always plays above her ranking in Australia.”
But could she win? Stosur’s smile leaves no doubt she’d love to one day hoist the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup but, in self-effacing style, downplays the thought that this could be her year.
“I hope that one day I can win a Grand Slam and I’m certainly going to do everything I can to try to achieve that. Singles is the priority for me this year, so my main focus is going to be on getting into the top 20 and doing well in the Australian Open. I can’t wait.”
And the little girl who dreamt of becoming a tennis player is having a ball. “Tennis has been everything I hoped for. I love what I do and wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
SAMMY OUR NO 1