So here was a peculiar day in the women’s tournament at Melbourne Park, one featuring two players still united by a night of extreme cruelty to umpires. Serena Williams and Sam Stosur will forever be linked by the Californian’s words during her defeat in last season’s US Open final when she spewed at the official in the chair, “you’re a hater and you’re just unattractive inside”.
Out there under the Rod Laver Arena arc-lights, it was a decent evening for the woman with the acid one-liners, a horrific afternoon for the woman who was supposed to be making a happy return by the Yarra River, one backlit by the glory of Flushing Meadows. First we endured the frailty, and the defeat, of someone (Stosur) who was making her first appearance at her home major as a grand slam champion. And then, on the same court, we watched the successful comeback of the player (Williams) who had raged in America, and who had missed last year’s Australian Open because of a gashed foot caused by stepping on a broken beer bottle.
This was about self-doubt, or the absolute lack of it. Stosur’s mind has always come packed with a little self-doubt. Sometimes, a player wins a slam and she is emboldened for life, happy to go back out there and have a swing, as whatever happens she will always have her major. Post-New York, Stosur never acquired that force-field, with one observer in The Australian newspaper noting that the player from the Gold Coast has “built her own cage, not of invincibility, but of fragility”. Self-doubt has never been Serena’s thing. Shame or embarrassment haven’t held her back either. The other day in Sydney, she did not even bother with a non-apology of an apology for events in New York City. There was no sorry, just the statement that she gets emotional on court, and anyway, “it’s not as if I used bad language or anything”.
So we had one player who has not been enhanced by her grand slam victory – there is an argument to say that she has been diminished – and another who has not been at all affected by the controversy of the last slam. Indeed, it would seem that Serena’s anger has had more long-term effect on Stosur, who has not been pleased with the realisation that her victory will now always be remembered for the American’s foam-flecked abuse of an official. Serena’s words have followed Stosur all the way to Melbourne, and they will travel with her to Roland Garros, the All England Club and Flushing Meadows, too.
The difference between the two of them is the sense of self-entitlement. Williams feels as though she deserves anything that comes her way, Stosur isn’t so sure.
In some ways, Stosur’s straight-sets defeat to Romania’s Sorana Cirstea was not at all shocking. At least it was not shocking to anyone who had read Pat Cash’s pre-tournament comments in The Melbourne Age. Stosur has never played her best tennis in Melbourne, even before she was a grand slam champion – she has never gone beyond the fourth round. Cash, who spoke with Stosur in the street during the build-up to this tournament, had said he felt sorry for her (and that was before she opened up and finished up against Cirstea). “The problem is that so many people want a piece of you during the Australian Open. It got to Lleyton Hewitt over the years, it encumbered Pat Rafter, who never played anything like as well at the Australian Open as he did at the US Open or Wimbledon, and it’s not really helping Sam,” Cash told The Age. “I don’t think she’s feeling at all comfortable. She’s just a quiet girl from the Gold Coast who just wants to go out there, play her tennis and win her titles. I don’t think she would be too bothered if there wasn’t any hoopla to go with everything. I bumped into her walking down the street the other day here in Melbourne. Frankly she looked exhausted already and the tournament still had not started. You couldn’t help feeling sorry for her.”
Australians sometime like to think of themselves as a laidback, relaxed people. That is patently not the case at Melbourne Park, where, like any other nation, Australia’s tennis public have high expectations of their own players. Stosur could not take the white heat of playing in front of a home crowd. “For sure, pressure affects you physically. That’s probably the easiest sign for outside people to see. You tighten up, your shoulders do get tight, you don’t hit through the ball,” Stosur said. “When anyone’s nervous, I think the first thing that goes is the footwork. You don’t move your feet as well. Once that breaks down, it’s easy for other things to start breaking down.”
Victory over Austria’s Tamria Paszek was Serena’s first appearance at Melbourne Park since she defeated Belgium’s Justine Henin in the 2010 final. Kim Clijsters is the actual defending champion, having won the title last season. Perhaps a little part of Williams will feel that she is also defending her title at Melbourne Park. Williams was playing with elaborate strapping and tape to protect an ankle. No tape-job is required for her mind.
Stosur’s defeat continued one pattern, that of female grand slam champions having a rough time at the next major after their victory. Clijsters followed up last year’s triumph in Melbourne by losing in the second round of the French Open (though she almost did not play at Roland Garros after injuring her foot at a cousin’s wedding). Li Na, the champion in Paris, failed to consolidate at Wimbledon, where she lost in the second round. Petra Kvitova, the Wimbledon champion, lost in the opening round at the US Open. The women’s tour needs someone to dominate again. Someone, you would have to think, like Williams.