We know Victoria Azarenka’s Australian story well, but what about the similar struggle of Sam Stosur?
Two of the very best women tennis players. Two pressure situations. And two very different reactions, followed by similar explanations.
In the second round of the Australian Open, ninth-seeded Sam Stosur was serving for the match.
After losing the second set, she rallied and led 5-2 in the third.
The score was 30-15; Stosur was two points away from winning the match.
First serve, out. Second serve, out. Double fault. 30-all.
And China’s Jie Zheng won the next two points, breaking Stosur.
Missed was the Australian’s first chance to serve out the match.
She moseyed to the shade in the back of the court, took off her sunglasses and grabbed a towel to wipe the sweat off her arms. Seconds later, she was walking to the baseline, preparing to return a serve from Zhen, who, at 3-5, had gained a mental edge.
In the semifinals of the Australian Open, top-seeded Victoria Azarenka was serving for the match. She had cooled off the 25th-seeded American Sloane Stephens and was a point away from her second straight Australian Open final.
Leading 40-15, Azarenka dumped a backhand into the net. At 40-30, she whaled a forehand 15 feet long.
She would blow three more match points — that’s five in all — before Stephens would end the 13-minute tentative contest with a screaming forehand up the line.
Gone was Azarenka’s first chance to serve out the match.
She grabbed her towel, wiped off her arms and racquet handle. She sauntered to her bench to sit in the shade and alone ponder her nerves during the changeover.
But Azarenka quickly had company. Medical staff gathered, and she kept pointing at her chest. She took a deep breath and exhaled. Soon, Azarenka was off her bench, mysteriously walking off the court, leaving Stephens to sit in the shade and sip her sports drink for 10 minutes.
Stosur had no such luxury. She was not injured; she was just nervous, what happens when you serve for matches, especially in front of thousands of people in your home country.
Zheng went onto hold, break and hold to give Stosur a chance to win four points and extend the match. But, after Zheng earned a match point, Stosur double-faulted.
She tried to explain after the match.
“You make an error and you tighten up. Unfortunately, it kept happening point after point. Crazy things pop into your head,” Stosur told reporters. ”You start not wanting to miss instead of making the winner.”
Azarenka returned 10 minutes later. She still catapulted a couple forehands long but seemed somewhat more composed, bouncing the ball in play enough times to win the next game.
She was relieved.
“I almost did the choke of the year right now,” she said on-court after the match. “I just felt, you know, a little bit overwhelmed.”
Innocently, an Australian announcer voiced the obvious in reference to her 10-minute “medical timeout” and her on-court chat: “She didn’t really tell us what was wrong with her.”
Later, yes, she tried to clarify: She had a rib injury.
Friday evening, Azarenka won her second straight Australian Open title, beating Li Na in three sets.
“You just have to go out there and try to play tennis in the end of the day,” Azarenka said after the match. “The things what happened in the past, I did the best thing I could to explain, to do everything I could, and it was left behind me already.”
Friday evening, Sam Stosur probably watched the match on television somewhere, wondering how and if she will overcome the nerves that have overwhelmed her in big matches.
Perhaps she should get some advice from Azarenka.