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Steve Flink: Stosur Ready for Primetime

9/11/2011 11:00:00 PM

By Steve Flink

FLUSHING MEADOWS-- Watching Serena Williams perform frequently across the last few weeks at the U.S. Open, I could not imagine that she would not win her fourth U.S. Open singles title. She had come in here seeded No. 28, but had seldom looked like anything but the best player in the world. Along the way to the final, she toppled No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka in a pivotal third round clash. She cut down world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals. She did not lose a set in her six matches, and there was a growing sense of inevitability surrounding her bid for a 14th Grand Slam championship. Williams had played some scintillating tennis over the summer, capturing the tournaments in Stanford, California and Toronto, beating most of her foremost rivals, setting the stage for a large triumph right here in the city of New York.

But 27-year-old Samantha Stosur had other notions. Although Stosur had been dissected in straight sets by Serena in the final of Toronto, she was not discouraged. Stosur has known for a long while that she is a better player than her record, an unfulfilled talent with the capacity to explore bigger and wider boundaries, a veteran with a keener sense now than ever before of who she is, where she is going, and what she can accomplish. Curiously, this woman had won only two tournaments in her entire career coming into the U.S.Open. She had been to only one Grand Slam tournament final, toppling both Justine Henin and Williams en route to losing the championship match against Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros in 2010.

And yet, Stosur remains a work in progress. She has the best second serve in the women’s game, an excellent kicker that is nearly impossible to attack. She has one of the best forehands in the women’s game, using a compact backswing and driving through the ball with remarkable depth and velocity off that side. Her two-handed backhand was once a major liability, but has now improved immeasurably after much hard work and practice on her part. Because Stosur had been so disappointing at the majors since her impressive Roland Garros run a year ago, she was largely overlooked by many observers as a candidate to win the last major of 2011.

Stosur was seeded ninth, but her progress here was impressive. In a critical third round contest, Stosur managed to defeat one of the sport’s enduring players, overcoming Nadia Petrova 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 7-5. That three hour, 16 minute clash was the longest recorded women’s match everplayed at the Open since the advent of the tie-break in 1970. In the round of 16, Stosur toppled another Russian, the No. 25 seed Maria Kirilenko, winning that battle 6-2, 6-7 (15), 6-3. She proceeded to oust No. 2 seed Vera Zvonareva (the 2010 finalist) 6-3, 6-3, and then in the penultimate round she accounted for Germany’s Angelique Kerber 6-3, 2-6, 6-2.

Stosur played that semifinal on the Grandstand. She had not played a match this year on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Yet she walked out onto that vast arena and comported herself honorably and magnificently. Serena never quite knew what had hit her. Stosur was victorious 6-2, 6-3. She broke Serena five times in two sets, controlled the flow of the match with her depth off the forehand, refused to allow Serena to break down her formerly suspect two-handedback hand, and returned serve superbly. Her second serve was decidedly better than Serena’s, and her capacity to rock Serena back on her heels consistently was a sight to behold.

The match unfolded totally unpredictably. The prevailing view was that Serena would set the tone from the outset, overpower her adversary with her relatively flat strokes off both sides, and serve Stosur right off the court. But that is what makes tennis such a compelling sport to follow; no matter how certain we may be of what is going to happen, significant upsets can occur at any time. This was one of those. I felt that one of the biggest previous upsets in a major women’s final was Maria Sharapova’s 6-1, 6-4 triumphover Serena at the 2004 Wimbledon. Serena was the top seed and the two-time defending champion, and Sharapova at 17 was seeded No. 13. That was a stunning achievement for the Russian to cast aside Serena in the final of the biggest tournament on the planet.

Yet this one ranks in my mind right up there at the very top of the list of startling U.S. Open women’s finals. To be sure, Stosur is an accomplished player who resides among the top ten in the world, and she had been in the final of the French Open only 15 months ago. But Serena had been so dominant across the summer, so clear in her convictions, so highly charged and motivated, that it was impossible not to envision her winning the tournament. Moreover, she had just crushed Stosur in the final of Toronto. And Stosur had only two singles titles in her entire career collection. There was every indication that Williams would not only beat Stosur in the championship match, but quite possibly obliterate her.

The match commenced as we all expected, with Serena holding serve in the opening game of the match. Thereafter, Williams never held the upper hand again.  Stosur settled into the match quickly and with no hint of trepidation. She was not intimidated in the least. She broke Serena in the third game, using her pace and depth to rush Serena into a backhand down the line long on the run. The signs were evident that this was going to be an exceedingly rough day at the office for the 29-year-old American. Stosur held easily at 15 for 3-1, and had a break point in the fifth game. Serena saved it by out hitting her adversary from the baseline in a fierce exchange, and she held on for 2-3 with a 110 MPH ace down the T.

Astoundingly, Williams never won another point in the set. Stosur swept three love games and 12 points in a row. At 3-2, she poured in four straight first serves, closing out that game with a clever 92 MPH kick first serve that elicited an errant backhand return from the American. Serena connected with three of four first serves in the following game, but it was to no avail. Stosur got that break with an acutely angled backhand return that forced Serena into a backhand mistake. At 5-2, Stosur unhesitatingly closed out the set with a pair of service winners, a sliced backhand error from an off balance Williams, and a dazzling forehand down the line winner from the Australian, directed behind the American into a vacant corner.

Controversy struck at the start of the second set. Serena was break point down at 30-40 in the opening game. She drove a forehand deep to Stosur’s backhand, making her opponent try to chase that shot down. Williams thought she had won her the point, so she screamed out in an effort to spur herself on. But Stosur still had a play on that ball. Therefore, umpire Eva Asderaki was justified to award the point to Stosur, and so the Australian was quickly up a break at 1-0 in that second set. Serena was livid. She yelled at the umpire to voice her disapproval, but this was blatant gamesmanship as well. She was looking for a way to rev herself up and to get the crowd even more vociferously on her side.

Fueled by her anger, Serena broke back for 1-1, but not before receiving a code violation from Asderaki for making antagonizing remarks. She moved ahead 3-2 on serve, and was determined to find a way back into the match. Stosur would not allow that to happen.  At 2-3, 30-30, with Serena seemingly ready to make her move, Stosur stood her ground ably. She looped a ball up high with topspin off the forehand and Serena could not deal with a two-handed backhand on that ball above her shoulders. At 40-30, Stosur drew Serena in with a short backhand slice, then passed her cleanly off the forehand. It was 3-3.

Serena had no way out of this, and she sensed that. At 3-3, 30-40, Williams drove a two-hander long as Stosur kept the pressure on the American. Stosur held at 15 for 5-3, drilling a forehand winner down the line that she set up an inside-out forehand winner. Now Serena was serving to stay in the match. She drifted to 15-40, but battled back to deuce with an overhead winner and a sharply angled crosscourt forehand that the Australian could not answer. But Stosur was unstoppable. She made an excellent forehand return that landed just inside the baseline. That set up an inside-out forehand winner. Fittingly, Stosur closed it out with another inside-out forehand winner, this one off a second serve return.

Stosur had thoroughly outclassed Williams in every facet of the game. Breaking Serena five times in the two sets was an almost unimaginable  achievement. To be sure, Serena hurt her own cause by connecting with only 35% of her first serves in the first set. But even when Serena was on target with 67% of her first serves in the second set, she still was broken three times. Stosur won 63% of her second serve points, demonstrating once more that her second delivery is the best in the women’s game. Serena won only 33% of her second serve points because Stosur was so consistent and aggressive on her returns that the American never had time to breathe.

And so Samantha Stosur has established herself as the first Australian woman since Margaret Smith Court in 1973 to win the women’s U.S.Open. Not since Wendy Turnbull in 1977 had an Aussie female even reached the final of the Open. At 27, Stosur is just beginning to realize her full potential, to make good on the promise she displayed so long ago, to take herself into the forefront of the women’s game. It has been a strange year in many ways for the women. Kim Clijsters won the Australian Open, lost early at Roland Garros, and has not played a major since. Li Na won Roland Garros and has slumped considerably, losing in the opening round here. Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon and has floundered ever since, falling in the first round of the Open as well.

Now Stosur has stepped forward and reminded us why she got to the final of Roland Garros a year ago. It is time for her to build on the platform of this success. The view here is that she will not settle for only this one major. Over the next three years and beyond, into her early thirties, as she gains even more experience and explores the full boundaries of her potential, Samantha Stosur is going to be a front line player who will at least put herself in a position to win more majors. This may have been a startling triumph for her at the U.S. Open, but she will realize that it did not happen by accident.

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