Tuesday February 21st, 2012

After a disappointing January, Sam Stosur rebounded to make the final in Doha, where she lost to Victoria Azarenka. (EPA)

Sam Stosur didn't hit a tennis ball for 10 days after her first-round exit from the Australian Open in January. Knocked off the court by the streaky but talented Sorana Cirstea in straight sets, the world No. 5 was left sitting under the bright lights of her post-match press conference, eyes red and struggling to explain why she has never played her best on home soil.

"That's sport," Stosur shrugged. "Unfortunately you can't pick and choose when it's all going to happen for you."

Emotionally crushed by the result, Stosur didn't need to hit the practice court to bash ball after ball in hopes of fine-tuning her game. Her loss wasn't an issue of tactics, technique or preparation. The psychological heft of the moment weighed her down. It was evident in every swing and step as she struggled to relax. So the first step was to simply get rid of it all, and she returned to Sydney and then took a vacation to South Australia to clear her mind.

"At that point in time it was what was needed, more than working yourself on court for another few days because of the disappointment that happened," she told SI.com after her quarterfinal win in Doha last week.

The mental break gave Stosur time to hit the reset button, put the disappointment behind her and quickly move on. With minimal practice under her belt, she traveled to Switzerland to play Fed Cup, notching her first back-to-back wins of the season. Neither of her opponents was ranked higher than No. 120, but for Stosur, sometimes it's just about getting on a roll and building confidence.

"I think I proved a lot to myself last year," Stosur said, "not having a good six-month season and then obviously the second half of the year ended quite well. You have to remember we've still got over 10 months. I want to do well in Australia for obvious reasons and that didn't happen, but you can't think it's all lost and everything's bad and not going happen, because a few weeks later I'm in the semis [of Doha]."

Fortunes change quickly in tennis. This week's goat is next week's hero and Stosur knows that as well as anyone. Her decisive performance at last year's U.S. Open, beating Serena Williams 6-2, 6-3 in the final, still leaves pundits scratching their heads wondering, Where the heck did that come from? But that trophy has given her a new perspective on her career, one that is less defined by her penchant for buckling under pressure and more by her ability to rebound. She's still getting used to it.

"As soon as you win a tournament like the U.S. Open, you've proved that you're one of the best players in the world, I suppose," Stosur said. "It's nice to know that. But it's funny when you're still in the sport and you're still playing how quickly it gets wiped away and you forget it."

Stosur took time to savor her maiden Grand Slam title during the offseason, but now that she's back into the weekly grind of the Tour, she finds it easy to forget it ever happened. With tennis players trained to focus on the immediate -- this shot, this game, this match, this tournament -- it can be difficult to find the time to step back and regain perspective. Stosur is still learning how to balance the need for focus and perspective, but she'll always have that U.S. Open title as a touchstone when times get tough.

"It is good to remember, 'You know what? I did do that, I did have a good year,' and remember those things when times are tough," she said. "It's something that helps you build yourself back up again maybe a little bit faster when you do have that validation behind you."

So far, it seems to be working. In 2011, Stosur returned to Australia as a French Open finalist, had a disastrous Australian swing and didn't reach the final of a tournament until May in Rome (where she lost to Maria Sharapova). This year, after another disastrous swing on her home soil that included early exits in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, she rebounded to make the Doha final (and avenged her loss to Cirstea in the process). She was routed by Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 6-2 in the final, but the 27-year-old Stosur didn’t get down on herself.

"For sure I'm happy with the week I've had," Stosur said after the loss. "It's been great to turn my form around so quickly after a disappointing month first up.” But just as one tournament does not spell disaster, it also does not signal a definitive rebound. Stosur will need to process the positives quickly as the Tour grind continues this week in Dubai. With a rapidly dwindling field that has seen the likes of Petra Kvitova, Li Na, Vera Zvonareva and Dominika Cibulkova withdraw with injury or illness, the Aussie has a great opportunity to improve on her career-best result in Dubai, a quarterfinal showing last year. A string of good results over the next two months would erase the disappointment from Australia and put her in prime position to be a favorite for Roland Garros, the site of her first Grand Slam final two years ago.

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