Sam Stosur displayed her own power game vs. the aggressive Serena Williams. (David Saffran/Icon SMI)
While walking up to the ticket gate on a blisteringly hot August day at the L.A. Women's Tennis Championshps two years ago, I caught the practice courts out of the corner of my eye. Even though all I wanted to do was sit down somewhere and get some shade, I wandered over to see if anyone was practicing.
Someone was. Decked out in a pair of Oakley sunglasses, Sam Stosur was working with her coach, Dave Taylor. Until then, I never paid much attention to Stosur. The only things I knew about her were that she was Australian, she was a very good doubles player and she had taken almost a year off from the WTA Tour while recovering from Lyme disease.
But on that day in 2009 I learned one more thing: I loved watching Sam Stosur hit a tennis ball.
No woman hits the ball quite like Stosur, and when you watch her drills during practice, you wonder why more don't. Then you watch her a little more and you wonder if anyone else actually could. There is a quiet violence in the way that she works a ball. She loads all her weight on her back foot, drops her racket and then explodes. Stosur whips her hips and wrist through the shot with such torque that the racket whistles through the air as it creates a tremendous amount of topspin on the ball. When her timing is on, it seems like she can yank the ball wherever she wants, opening up the court and hitting winners at will. And when it's off, you better bring your helmet if you plan to sit courtside.
Being aggressive is the name of the game for Stosur. When you have the weapons she possesses, matches are usually on your racket. That can be both a benefit and a burden.
"That's the way I've always tried to play," she said. "Sometimes you lose that way as well. But a lot of times you win and you get the rewards. The more aggressive players win these big tournaments. They back themselves. In the big matches, you see someone go for that shot right down the line and it lands on the line and you think, 'How can you go for that in that moment?' That's why. Because they do that all the time. In the big moment, it pays off."
Stosur proved that fact again in Sunday's U.S. Open final against Serena Williams, another practitioner of aggressive tennis who doesn't simply wait for her opponent to make a mistake. The 27-year-old Stosur played assertively to beat the woman who is widely regarded as the best player in the world.
"When you talk about trying to make it in tennis, this is the absolute cherry on top," Stosur said after winning her first Grand Slam tournament. "I've made it. This is exactly what I've ever wanted since I started playing."
After an adventurous two weeks of record-breaking matches, being relegated to lesser courts and eliminating second-ranked Vera Zvonareva 6-3, 6-3 in a 67-minute shellacking, Stosur found herself with an opportunity for redemption. It was, she admits, an unexpected chance. Earlier in the week, Stosur admitted that she thought she may have blown her only shot at a major title when she lost to Francesca Schiavone in the 2010 French Open final. Stosur came out tight and got outclassed by the Italian.
This time, in a battle between two offensive-minded players, Stosur was the one getting the first strike on the ball. She repeatedly feasted on Serena's second serve and pounced on anything that landed short. And at key moments, such as when she faced break point serving at 1-2 in the second set after Williams began to fight her way back into the match, Stosur settled herself and executed under pressure. She had learned her lesson the hard way in Paris. This time, Stosur seized her moment.
"Everything you would ever want to do in a moment like that, I couldn't of dreamed of playing a better match," she said. "Doing it 6-2, 6-3 doesn't seem possible against an opponent like Serena in a final of a Slam."
Stosur became the first Australian woman to win a Grand Slam event since Evonne Goolagong Cawley won Wimbledon in 1980. She's only the third woman (after Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova) to beat Serena in a Grand Slam final. As Stosur looked at the U.S. Open trophy, the conversation turned to some of the names already engraved in silver. "Some pretty good ones," she said. "Some of my idols are on that trophy and now my name's right under them. My favorite player ever was Steffi Graf. It's incredible to think I'm on there as well."