Wednesday, August 5, 2015

CITI OPEN: SUDDENLY SAMANTHA

I'm not going to lie - I love almost everything about Sam Stosur, and I have for years.  One look at the second most famous pair of guns in women's tennis, and knowing what she came through 8 years ago to recover from Lyme disease and to come back, like the bionic woman, better-stronger-faster, only the most cynical of cynics would suggest that she is anything but 100% committed to being the best player than she can be.  That may not seem like much if you assume that such commitment is universal, but from the mouths of (big tennis) babes in this piece, in fact, it is as refreshing as it is rare.  On the basis of this commitment alone, the level of admiration for her, from all corners of the sports world, ought to be very high indeed.

And then when you get a look at her game, it's hard not to appreciate that as much (if not more) than her commitment.  She hits one of the heaviest serves on tour, with a combination of pace and spin that is generally unseen in women's tennis.  It helps that her shoulders are broader than mine, so that she can bring the racquet head up and over her crown the way she must, to make the ball leap off the court the ways he does.  But the thing that really gets it done on that shot is her legs - nobody leaps up and into their serve like she does, and that's the main reason for its effect.  

Similarly, on her forehand, she has a modern version of the stroke that minimizes the all racquet head movement prior to the point of contact.  Whilst keeping the racquet head entirely on the forehand side of her body, she launches the full force of her legs and core into the stroke, with a follow through so full and violent, she finishes with a curl across her chest, or over her head, almost out of necessity.  Both of those strokes impart more top spin on the ball than any other player on tour.  And while her technical asymmetry, (a forehand far superior to her backhand) more characteristic of the ATP than the WTA I might add, presents defensive challenges for her, from an attacking perspective, no player is more capable of controlling the center of the court.  And because her stroke production is efficient, she can do it equally well on all surfaces.

I asked Sam, in her pre-tournament press-conference, whether she and her coach talked about or worked on any conscious adjustments to her game as she made an unusual transition, this year from grass to clay to the hard courts in the span of six weeks.  Her response was at once surprising and revealing:  she said that while the clay is best suited to her game, and adjustments have to be made regardless of whatever surface you're coming from or going to, the vast majority of adjustments are the result of a natural (but accelerated) evolution of her game, and that is, in my opinion a testament to her technical efficiency.  The fewer the moving parts, the fewer the adjustments that need to be made, and that bodes well.

Speaking of technical asymmetry, it didn't prevent her from pulling off one of the greatest upsets and most comprehensive major final victories, over Serena Williams, in 2011 at the US Open.  There, she used the slice backhand more effectively than I've ever seen her do before or since, and the result was equally unique.  Unfortunately that match is known more for this little tantrum from Serena, than for her brilliant technical and tactical mastery of the game, which I admired from start to finish, but the thing to remember in that match, is that Stosur had just lost to Serena in Los Angeles earlier that year, and earlier in Serena's comeback.  So if there were a time for her to sneak one in on her more illustrious rival, it would have been on the West Coast - but fortunately for Sam, she used the information from the first encounter, to great effect in the second.

I've always admired players who ignore the illusory impact of the overwhelming head-to-head record (one of tennis' greatest myths) and persevere with both their mind and their technical arsenal.  As the Romans used to put it, one should return from battle either with their shield or on it, and Stosur risked looking like the occasion had gotten the best of her (as it did in 2010 at Roland Garros against Francesca Schiavone), had her tactical approach caused her to fall on her face.  But to her credit, she left it all on the court, mentally and physically, and deservedly won.

Since then, Sam's results have been more reminiscent of the limited success she enjoyed prior to what has turned out to be the zenith of her career.  To the best of my ability, I haven't been able to figure out why.  And that's why her victory over Irlina Falconi today at the Citi Open, the 501st in the career best female Australian player since Evonne Goolagong, was so encouraging for me to observe.  Coming off of a comeback victory in the Bad Gastein final two weeks ago, Sam's game appears to have turned a corner, and the timing couldn't be better.  The pace on her first serve was everything you'd expect it to be, and would have been uniquely impressive had it not been for the placement thereof.  Time and again she hit spots on the court with pace 20 to 30 mph faster than her opponent.  And no matter how many times Falconi belted one flat cross court forehand after another, the tight production of her own forehand not only kept Stosur in the point, but allowed her to get a foothold in the return of serve that gave her an insurmountable edge in the match.

But what I really like about the way Sam's game looks right now is her movement - nobody in the women's game floats around the court like Sam does.  You'd think quickness was a strength, but that's not the same as having world class movement.  At the end of the day, the paramount objective of any player's footwork, but especially Sam's is to get in position to hit her shots.  And the most important shot of all is the forehand.  Sam's ability to shuffle around the outside of the ball, in order to go big on the inside out forehand, and set up the put away to the other corner, is her footwork.  And these days, it's as good as it's ever been, and then some.  I, for one, would be delighted to see her carry that through to the 2015 US Open.  

She'll need to if she is become (once again) the only player on tour to have beaten Serena Williams at her home major (with no asterisk attached) since Justine Henin did it in 2007.
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