It’s a fairly common story. Player performs well, or scores a big result, and home fans’ expectations skyrocket. Player arrives at home tournament, struggles to cope with the intense spotlight and public’s thirst for glory, and exits early. Fans are disappointed, and player is shattered.
And the cycle repeats each year.
Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo was a famous example of a player who consistently underperformed at Roland Garros, forever unable to reproduce the form that saw her win two majors elsewhere around the globe. In fact, French players in general have traditionally struggled on the clay of their home Grand Slam. American Jennifer Capriati was notoriously tight at the US Open, falling three times in the semifinals in third set tiebreaks, all matches during which she was in winning positions.
At Australian Open 2012, Sam Stosur admitted that she found it much the same playing in front of local crowds.
“I put far too much pressure on myself in the Aussie summer because I really, really wanted to do well. You only get the opportunity to play at home for a few weeks and I probably built it up too big and didn’t handle the occasions on court very well at all,” she said recently.
There’s clearly no problem with Stosur’s powerful game – it helped her to a Grand Slam title at the US Open in 2011, and maintain a top 10 ranking throughout 2012, her third straight year in the elite bracket.
In fact, immediately after her first round loss to Sorana Cirstea at Melbourne Park in January, she was back on court playing for Australia in Fed Cup, winning both her singles rubbers against Switzerland in straight sets. She then reached the WTA Premier final at Doha just 10 days later.
“You’re not going to play well all year, but you’ve got to be able to bounce back, and I thought I did that quite well this year,” she said.
Yet heading into the Australian summer of 2013, Stosur is not interested in being able to bounce back from disappointment – she doesn’t want to have a disappointment to have to bounce back from.
The world No.9 had until this week not touched a racquet since her last match of the year in late October, a break from the game that has allowed her to relax, refresh and recharge following a gruelling season. She’s not yet even thinking about a return to the tournaments – Brisbane, Sydney and the Australian Open – that caused her such angst 11 months earlier.
“Once I start preparing and practising, certain things will probably become more apparent because then it will feel like it’s really kind of around the corner, but I haven’t thought about it too much at the moment, I don’t want to stress out about it,” she said.
“But once the time comes I will have certainly done everything in my power to play as best as I can.”
Among those things is getting herself physically prepared in the gym. Already known as one of the fittest and strongest players in the women’s game, Stosur is constantly striving to build upon that level, and believes that her physical fitness helped her come through a string of long, tough matches toward the end of this season.
Her goal in the off-season has been to mix up her training.
“I’ve been in the gym, I’ve been kayaking, I’ve done lots of bike-riding, I’m trying to do some boxing ... trying to mix it up and keep it interesting and not always be in the gym. Trying to get outside while it’s a nice day while you get the opportunity to do different things (before the season starts).”
With the physical side sorted, the Australian will also look to bolster the mental side of her game, the main factor in her underwhelming Australian season results. Tense and error-prone, she was unable to execute the searing serve and heavy forehand that have characterised her rise to the top of the women’s game.
Stosur, theoretically, should perform very well at the Australian Open. The medium-slow, true-bouncing hardcourts in Melbourne afford her plenty of time to set up for her shots and unleash power on opponents. Superior conditioning means she can withstand the sweltering temperatures that are a feature of Melbourne in January.
And aside from her earlier-than-expected losses during the 2012 Australian summer, Stosur has generally performed solidly on home soil. She reached the fourth round at the Australian Open in 2006 and 2010, and has made it through to the third round a further three times. She also reached the Gold Coast and Sydney finals in 2005.
Stosur said the key is to communicate better with her team in the run-up to the Australian Open, ensuring she best manages her emotions and expectations.
“One of the biggest things (this coming summer) is just to be open about how I’m feeling with the people around me. If I am nervous or feeling uptight about things, probably (I need) to express it a little bit more and get it out there so I can actually use the people around me for help, and not try and pretend it’s not happening if it is,” she said.
Something that will stand the world No.9 in good stead is the fact that she has little to defend in the way of points throughout January.
The only way she can go, as they say, is up.
“(I want to) go out there and really try and enjoy it – I think sometimes that can get lost when you obviously want to play as best you can in your home tournament,” she explained.
“You definitely want to do that, but I think you can’t place any more importance on it (matches at the Australian Open) than any other match throughout the year.”