Last to Go: Stosur’s Collapse Ends Australian Women’s Hopes

After she had lost a painful three-setter to Zheng Jie in Sydney last week, Sam Stosur must have entered Rod Laver Arena with thoughts of revenge as well as some trepidation.  The only Aussie women left in the singles draw, she had compiled a history of underachievement on home soil.  Moreover, Stosur recently had recovered from surgery for a bone spur near her ankle, so she had looked rusty in her first few matches of 2013.  What awaited was a stunning collapse at her home major that rivaled any of her disasters there before, although a different outcome looked likely if not nearly certain at more than one juncture.


Her confidence perhaps boosted by the first-round victory, the home hope started more solidly on serve than she had in Sydney.  An errant forehand from Zheng produced an early break point for Stosur, but a netted backhand let the opportunity escape.  The former US Open champion earned success by stretching the tenacious Chinese star wide along the baseline from the outset of the rallies, and by exploiting her physical limitations with kick serves and topspin-heavy groundstrokes.  For her part, Zheng did what most of Stosur’s opponents try to do in finding her backhand wing, much less imposing than her forehand.  But her second serve was a liability on which the Aussie tried to pounce, connecting on some return winners while spraying others well wide.


Through the first several games, Stosur held serve more comfortably than did Zheng, reversing a trend from their previous meeting.  That pattern ended in the fifth game, when a horrifically shanked second serve that landed over the baseline set up two break points.  Remarkably unruffled by the embarrassment, Stosur bounced back to hold with more accurate groundstrokes.  She found herself in trouble again at 3-3, however, following a brilliantly angled backhand pass from Zheng that negated a strong approach.  Watching a forehand return winner dart past her cross-court, Stosur faced triple break point.  An entertaining cat-and-mouse exchange ensured with Zheng at the net and Stosur at the baseline, but the Chinese secured the last word with a deft volley.


Having claimed the first break of the match, Zheng opened her attempt to consolidate with a double fault.  Emboldened by that ominous start, Stosur swung more confidently on her returns and soon drew level with consecutive forehand winners.  She began to dictate the rallies more regularly as she ran around her backhand more often.  That effort went wasted after a dreadful service game in which she yielded three double faults and an unforced error on break point, allowing Zheng to serve for the set.


This time, the Chinese moved quickly to triple set point, only to let all three slip away.  A double fault erased a fourth, an unforced error a fifth, and a spectacular defensive lob from Stosur contributed to erasing a sixth just when Zheng looked on the verge of ended a rally that she had controlled.  As she continue to struggle with her backhand, Stosur watched a seventh set point slip away and threatened to save an eighth as well.  But she shanked a routine drive volley well long to end the epic game and sink into a one-set hole.


As Zheng’s steady defense continued to chip away, Stosur wobbled through another treacherous service game.  Six deuces and two break points later, she ended a two-game stretch that had lasted 34 points.  Stosur began to venture towards the net more often, sometimes succeeding in taking time away from Zheng and sometimes punished by her opponent’s crisp passing shots.  Two explosive forehand returns enabled her to record the first break of the second set, in the fourth game.  As her confidence rose, Stosur began to prey upon Zheng’s serve more ruthlessly.  An insurance break sealed by a sequence of penetrating forehands allowed her to cruise through the second set.  To this stage, the match had resembled their Sydney encounter, although that second set had reached a tiebreak.


More self-assured in her body language now, Stosur began to show the poise that she needed to sustain her momentum in the third.  In the first game of the final set, she won a long backhand-to-backhand exchange with the sort of patience that had eluded her in the first set.  Now more in control of her weapons, the Aussie earned an immediate break from the fading Zheng.  Another brief momentum shift awaited when she dropped her serve at love with a double fault, but her opponent dropped her own serve for the fourth straight time without much resistance.  A key turning point came in the next game, when Sam again fell behind 0-40 before climbing out of the deficit with penetrating groundstrokes.  Saving two more break points before the game ended, she established a 3-1 lead more through perseverance than brilliance.


With a double-break advantage hers, Stosur had two opportunities to serve out the match and clinch her berth in the third round.  In a stunning twist of events, she could convert neither of them, never arriving at a match point.  The invigorated Zheng fired a series of fierce groundstrokes to reach 5-5 and  thrust the pressure squarely back on the favorite’s shoulders.  Never a player who surrenders easily, the Chinese forced Stosur to fight for each point that she won, a task that her faltering nerves struggled to handle.


Serving to stay alive now, Stosur quickly fell behind 0-30 with a backhand error.  Two points later, Zheng cracked a forehand winner down the line to set up double match point.  At that moment, Stosur ended her own misery with a gruesome double fault into the net that completed her stunning collapse, 6-4 1-6 7-5, and left no home hopes in the women’s singles draw here.  Before the third day of the 2013 Australian Open ended, only Tomic and Duckworth remained among the legions of Aussies who had arrived in Melbourne.