Sam Stosur arrives in New York this week in a position she has never before found herself in – that of a defending Grand Slam champion.
The 28-year-old famously defeated Serena Williams in last year’s US Open final to cap a fairytale fortnight in the Big Apple, where she won two record-breaking matches on her path to the final before dismissing the then 13-time major winner in straight sets.
Yet since becoming a major champion herself, Stosur’s form has been up and down, leading many to believe that she may struggle to replicate her winning run at Flushing Meadows.
She ended 2011 on a high note by reaching the semifinals at the WTA Championships, but opened 2012 with a disappointing Australian summer, which culminated with a heartbreaking first-round defeat at the Australian Open.
Solid Fed Cup play and a run to the Doha final ensued, only to be followed by early losses at the big American spring hardcourt tournaments. She was back to her best on clay but missed a golden opportunity to reach the French Open final, putting in an erratic performance and falling to Sara Errani in the semifinals. Her grasscourt season – Wimbledon and the Olympics – was one to forget.
Despite not enjoying as impressive a lead-up on North American hardcourts as last year, Stosur said after her three-set loss to Venus Williams in the Cincinnati quarterfinals that she felt she was getting close to rediscovering her best level.
“It's always disappointing to lose when you play a good match like that (against Venus) and you think you've done enough almost to win. Still, I had three really good matches here (in Cincinnati) and can get confidence and gain a bit of momentum going into New York,” she said.
"It's a good feeling to be going into the (US Open) now I think with a little bit more confidence, which is good.”
One thing that has definitely imbued the Australian with confidence has been a welcome return to hard courts.
It’s no secret that Stosur is not the biggest fan of grass – the lawns neutralise her weapons, most notably her damaging kick serve and viciously top-spun forehand. It showed in her results too, as Stosur followed a second-round defeat at Wimbledon with a first-round exit at the London 2012 Olympics.
Hard courts, however, reward the very game that has caused opponents so much trouble in the past four seasons, when she first announced her arrival with a run to the French Open semifinals in 2009.
“A high-bouncing hard court is very conducive to my style of tennis, so from my first hit in practice I feel comfort in my shot-making and weapons,” she explained.
Yet comfort in the surface can only take her so far. Stosur will have many more factors to deal with in New York this year compared with her free-hitting, under-the-radar run to the title 12 months earlier.
Chief among them will be the calibre of her opponents. While last year the Australian faced just one top 10 opponent – Vera Zvonareva – at Flushing Meadows, it will be unlikely that such an open draw will unfold in 2012. Big names Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams are all exceptional hardcourt players and have been the form players at the majors this season, winning the first three between them.
Stosur has historically struggled against Azarenka and Sharapova, and increasingly against Williams, who has bested the world No.7 in the two matches they've played since last year’s final in New York. Another player who could present problems is No.5 Petra Kvitova, rounding into form on hard courts this summer and another player with a dominant head-to-head record over Stosur.
Something Stosur must also face is heightened expectation, and the pressure of defending a truck-load of points. An early exit in New York could see the Queenslander fall outside the top 10.
But admirably, she is putting a positive spin on the situation she finds herself in. Stosur said she would relish the opportunity to take on Williams again, and is looking forward to returning the loud, brash, exciting city that brought her the biggest success of her career.
“It is a great challenge to play one of the all-time best players of our sport. I have good results against (Serena). (And) having to defend points is a positive for me as it is a reminder that I have done well here the year before,” she said.
“I can’t wait to get back to New York City … Walking into Flushing Meadows as defending champion will be very special, something I hope to get to do again after 2012.”