x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Nerves shatter Samantha Stosur's Australian Open dreams

The US Open champion saw her dreams of winning her home grand slam shattered in the first round.

Samantha Stosur was left frustrated by her loss in the first round at the Australian Open.
Samantha Stosur was left frustrated by her loss in the first round at the Australian Open.

MELBOURNE // Coming into the Australian Open as a grand slam winner ought to have lifted the pressure from Sam Stosur. Instead, it seemed to double it.

The US Open champion crashed out in the first round, beaten 7-6, 6-3 by Sorana Cirstea in front of her home crowd at Rod Laver Arena yesterday. Her bid to end a 34-year drought for Australian women at the Australian Open was in tatters on just the second day of the tournament.

As she spoke to the media afterward, her eyes appeared red and slightly swollen.

"I'm probably very close to crying, having a really awful night," Stosur said. "It's hard to suppress those emotions when it means so much to you."

Stosur, the sixth seed, has never got past the fourth round at the Australian Open, the weight of expectation apparently too much to bear. In 10 trips to Melbourne Park, Stosur has lost in the first round three times - the last time in 2005.

The defeat was not entirely surprising. She also lost early at two warm-up tournaments, and after going out in the first round at the Sydney International, she said she was struggling to cope with the pressure.

"The whole emotional side of things really took over," the 27 year old said. "It never felt like I was able to be loose and free with the way I wanted to play."

Stosur has been working with a psychologist from the Australian Institute of Sport since last April to try to overcome the stress she sometimes feels on the court. It helped her rediscover her form after falling flat in the 2010 French Open final against Francesca Schiavone.

Against Serena Williams, the 13-time grand slam winner, in the US Open final last September, Stosur stayed remarkably calm in a commanding 6-2, 6-3 win. It was Williams who lost her cool in front of a home crowd; Stosur remained composed long enough to become the first Australian women since Evonne Goolagong Cawley at Wimbledon in 1980 to win a grand slam singles title.

But Stosur could hardly keep the ball in court in her match with Cirstea, spraying 33 unforced errors.

"I think for sure it affects you physically," the Australian said of her nerves. "I think it is easy to see that you tighten up, your shoulders do get tight, you don't hit through the ball.

"When anyone's nervous, I think 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."

Cirstea was all too aware of the baggage Stosur was carrying.

"She had the pressure. I had nothing to lose," Cirstea, who is ranked No 59, said. "Sam, she's a great player. She had a lot of pressure on her shoulders coming out today. I just tried to play my best."

No Australian woman had won the title since Chris O'Neil in 1978. Hana Mandlikova won the Australian Open in 1980 and 1987 while competing as a Czech, but did not go past the quarter-finals after becoming a naturalised Australian in 1988.

The men's drought is longer, dating back to Mark Edmondson's win in 1976 - Pat Cash, Pat Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt could win majors elsewhere, but not at home.