Weight of nation too much for Stosur

Remember the Sam Stosur who won the US Open with such style and panache last September? That Sam Stosur doesn’t play in Australia. Back home, with the weight of expectation on her shoulders, this fine tennis player and likable personality turns into an altogether less confident figure who appears quite unable to reproduce the kind of tennis that proved too much for Serena Williams in New York.

On Rod Laver Arena in the first round of the Australian Open, the local Stosur, as opposed to the international Stosur, lost 7-6, 6-3 to Sorana Cirstea, a Romanian who finished last year ranked No. 60, having once been as high as 23. So Cirstea can play at a high level but, in truth, she didn’t have to.

Stosur broke serve twice in the first set only to lose her own immediately on both occasions. She tried slicing her backhand, varying her pace, going for her shots, but little worked because her shoulders were like boards and her legs wouldn’t move.

Cirstea went for everything and, in between mistakes, hit some terrific winners. Afterwards she joked that the critics had been saying what an easy draw Stosur had so she decided to show everyone who she was. "And now everyone in Australia probably hates me," she laughed.

For Stosur, emotion was at the other end of the spectrum. Honest and open as ever in press conference, Sam admitted, "I’m probably very close to crying, having a really awful night. But I think you feel what you feel, whether it’s good or bad. It’s hard to suppress those emotions when it means so much to you."

And that’s the problem. It means so much to her and all her Aussie fans.

"I know everyone is behind me but I think for sure the expectation affects you physically and that’s probably the easiest thing for people to see. Your shoulders do get tight, you don’t hit through the ball. When anyone’s nervous the first thing that goes is your footwork. You don’t move your feet as well. Once that breaks down, it’s easy for other things to start breaking down."

In nine attempts, Stosur has only twice got as far as the fourth round at Melbourne Park. Yet she has been in the semifinal and final of the French Open and, of course, landed the biggest prize of all at Flushing Meadows.

"I guess the US Open final, the way I played and everything, is the absolute pinnacle of where you want to get to. Now I know that is possible. You want to keep pushing for that. It is unrealistic to think that you are going to play like every single time. That’s kind of hard to deal with as well. You know it’s there but why doesn’t it happen over and over and over again?"

So many athletes have asked that question and come up short with the answer. But Sam will take a break and come back for more. And one day she might be able to show her loyal fans the other Stosur.

Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, a strong contender here, used her power to demolish the 86th-ranked Russian Vera Dushevina 6-2, 6-0 while Maria Sharapova, fit again after her ankle problems, relished feeling good on court again and beat her former doubles partner Gisela Dulko 6-0, 6-1. The last time they had played in a Slam, the Argentine had won so Sharapova was on her guard.

"She can definitely play some really good tennis," she said. "I think I just mentally prepared for that. I think I played pretty aggressive and she’s someone who likes to have time to create her shots so it was important to take that away from her."

Sloane Stephens, one of America’s brighter hopes who progressed to the third round of the US Open last September, claimed her third victory at the Grand Slam level in impressive style by defeating Spain’s Silvia Soler-Espinosa 6-4, 6-2.