By Blair Henley
The ATP Tour is full of late bloomers. Sure there is the occasional teenage superstar, but it’s often more common for men to peak in their mid to late 20’s.
Not so on the women’s side.
That’s why 26-year-old Samantha Stosur’s recent first-time appearance in the Top 10 is an unusual feat. Her stellar doubles resume has made it easy to miss the fact that her singles ranking has been steadily improving since her professional debut in 1999.
In an age where mindless pounding from the baseline seems to have taken over, Stosur has shown that a well-rounded game, complete with solid volleys and a blazing serve, pays long-term dividends. Up-and-coming players and their coaches would be wise to take note.
Stosur, who goes by the nickname Sam, grew up in Queensland, Australia and didn’t start playing tennis until age 8, when a friend gave her a racket for Christmas. She spent as much time as possible hitting with her older brother until he advised their parents to get her some real lessons. By the time she turned 16, Sam’s rapid improvement had secured her a spot in the Australian Institute of Sport’s tennis program, which helped launch her professional career.
Stosur’s aggressive style of play took some time to develop, and it wasn’t until 2005 that she started seeing significant results in both singles and doubles. She teamed up with Lisa Raymond midway through the year and proceeded to win seven doubles titles with her new partner, including the U.S. Open and the WTA Tour Championships. Her newfound success provided the necessary momentum heading into 2006, where Stosur delighted her home crowd by making it to the fourth round of the Australian Open. After that solid season, she reached the No. 1 ranking in doubles and sat comfortably at No. 29 in singles.
Things were looking great for the Aussie, but trouble lurked right around the corner. After a decent start to 2007, Stosur’s season was cut short by extreme fatigue and joint pain. It wasn’t until October of that year, after a viral meningitis scare, that she was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease. The tick-borne illness sapped her strength and energy and left many wondering if she could come back from such severe health issues.
Stosur overcame the odds and had a fairly successful return to tennis in 2008, but she didn’t completely regain steam until the following year. In addition to her consistent doubles success, Sam’s all-court game fell together in 2009, making her a significant singles threat in the process. Her breakthrough season was capped off by her first WTA Tour singles title in Osaka.
That brings us to 2010. Stosur went into this year with a new and improved slice backhand and an intense focus on her singles play. Boy has that paid off. She recently captured the Family Circle Cup title and just fell in a tough three-setter to Justine Henin in the final of the Stuttgart Grand Prix. Interestingly, many of her biggest tournament wins have come on clay, which speaks to her adaptability and peak physical condition.
Stosur may have been a long-shot for success when she turned pro over ten years ago, but her slow and steady ascent shows just how dedicated she has been to a game-style that took some extra time to develop. For every hard-hitting baseliner that has succeeded on the pro tour, there are many more that have flamed out upon realizing their games had hit a permanent plateau. Sam is a fantastic example for the next generation of players who would be smart to establish an aggressive, well-rounded game that can set them up for long-term success.
Only time will tell if Samantha Stosur will become a fixture among the world’s tennis elite, but for now it looks like this late bloomer has effectively thrown her “doubles specialist” title out the window, trading it in for something more along the lines of singles powerhouse.