Stosur at home in Paris

The incongruity of Roland Garros for Sam Stosur is that the place where she has produced her most consistent grand slam results has also been the scene of two of her most devastating losses. The claycourt major that, in some ways, made her career, has also made her weep, question, and lament.
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This week, almost 12 months after her painful semi-final loss to Italian Sara Errani, Stosur walked back through the gates to prepare for a 10th appearance at the tournament that hosted her breakthrough semi-final appearance in 2009, and debut grand slam final the next year. Some great memories, certainly, but also, one would think, the ghosts of chances lost.

”I think you’d have to say it’s more of a happy place and a place you’re looking forward to going back to,” Stosur told Fairfax Media before arriving in Paris on Wednesday.

”There’s maybe that missed opportunity or those really disappointing moments, but at the end of the day it’s all good going back there, that’s for sure.

”Three out of the past four years I’ve made semis or better and they’re very good results, but in those results I’ve had probably two of the hardest losses that I can really remember, so, yeah, it is kind of bitter-sweet.

”Of course, getting that far is great, but you always want to keep going and do that little bit better. But I do always enjoy walking into Roland Garros and starting the tournament, and I seem to play well. For sure, there’s also those lingering disappointing moments, but that’s all part of tennis – I just happened to have two of them in the same spot.”

The last, against the crafty but relatively unimposing Errani, came when a third grand slam final beckoned the 2011 US Open champion, and ranks as Stosur’s toughest loss of 2012. Seeded three places lower – ninth – this time, she has also had a compromised preparation, missing five weeks with a calf injury in early March that caused more problems during her aborted return in April.

Only last week, by reaching the quarter-finals in Rome, did the 29-year-old rediscover some of the momentum she had again failed to gather during her wobbly start to the year in Australia, and which had eluded her while feeling her way way in Stuttgart and Madrid. At the Foro Italico, defeats of Sue-Wei Hseih and Shuai Peng and then a first career win over Petra Kvitova preceded a three-set loss to Victoria Azarenka in what was a timely correction.

”Having won those couple of matches in Rome obviously makes you feel better, then beating Petra for the first time, and then [having] a good match against Victoria, I feel like I’m back on track now. Even though the start of the claycourt season wasn’t what I wanted it to be, I feel like now I’ve found some form before the French,” Stosur says.

”Of course it was very important. You don’t like losing consecutive matches, or having not a very good win/loss record for the year at any point, especially at this time of the year where I feel like the surface is [one] that I can do well on. There’s no guarantees of what’s going to happen, but at least I’m back to where I kinda should be.”

And to where Stosur’s powerful, kick-serving, topspin game is so well suited. Her 22-9 return at Roland Garros ranks ahead of Flushing Meadows (17-8), Melbourne Park (15-11) and the challenging grass of Wimbledon (6-10); indeed, the wreckage of another dark Australian summer would suggest that she is one of the many who finds it easier to play away than at home, where the attention and expectation are magnified.

”What’s easier is just that the French is her favourite tournament,” counters Todd Woodbridge, Tennis Australia’s head of tennis. ”It’s the tournament where she’s had the most consistent results and she doesn’t get as nervous there, I feel, because it’s a comfort zone, it’s her domain. It’s the surface that’s the standout for her and it’s the tournament that made her career, the tournament that set up her career.”

More recently, the former world No. 4 has held steady in the lower half of the top 10, despite the interruptions and indifferent results of 2013, but the player whose last title was her first major, at Flushing Meadows almost 21 months ago, will take a rankings hit if she makes an early exit in Paris. Not that she feels any more or less pressure in that regard, insists Stosur, who is 19th in the race to the WTA Championships that measures calendar-year results.

”To be honest, I’m not really one to look at the rankings and think, ‘Oh, geez, I’ve got X amount of points coming off this week, or this week I’ve got none to defend,’ or anything like that,” she says. ”I look at the year more on the whole and just try and do as well as I can every single week, and I know there’s repercussions for not doing that but, honestly, I don’t look at that too much, I don’t study it.”

Nor, she says, did she spend too long wallowing in the aftermath of a home circuit that brought just one win from four matches in her first three tournaments after ankle surgery. ”It’s tough at the time,” she says, ”but you’ve got to be pretty quick at erasing disappointing moments in this game, because you can’t dwell for too long on something that wasn’t good, otherwise you’re never going to get past it, never going to play well.”

In Paris, she will return to a couple of her favourite restaurants, Indian and Italian, but stay in a new hotel after renting apartments privately for the past few years. Her long-time coach, David Taylor, quit the Fed Cup captaincy this year to travel less and devote his weeks on the road solely to Stosur; and the former world No. 1 in doubles will combine with Francesca Schiavone – her conqueror in the 2010 singles final – at both the French and Wimbledon.

The doubles return, which has already spanned five tour events this year, is about gaining some extra match practice, and experiencing more of what only tournament play can provide. Practising is one thing, Stosur says, but the need ”to make a return at 30-30 or on break point, or whatever” can be another. ”I’ve been enjoying playing a little bit more doubles this year. I’m not going to play every single week, but I’m looking forward to it.”

Just as there is still much else ahead for a superfit athlete who, despite a frustratingly stop-start season, is ready to go again and looking to the next fortnight at Roland Garros with quiet optimism. Says Woodbridge: ”She is really keen to get a strong result. Her season has been a bit depleted so far, but I know that with the work that she’s been doing, the door will open again soon.”

Adds Stosur: ”I’m certainly not going there thinking, ‘Oh, geez, I played not a great match in my last one here.’ That’s not going to be my thought at all. It’s a new year, you’ve got to start fresh and everyone starts from scratch again. No doubt I feel like it’s a tournament that I can do well at, as I’ve proven in the past, and I want to try and at least do that again and hopefully even better.”

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Baker’s derby stocks rise

Hugh beauty: Jockey Hugh Bowman will ride Usainity for Kiwi trainer Murray Baker in Saturday’s Grand Prix Stakes. Photo: Jenny EvansNew Zealand trainer Murray Baker admits that the performances of his two three-year-olds in the Grand Prix Stakes at Doomben on Saturday will give him a significant insight into his stable’s prospects of winning two derbies with different horses in the one season.
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Baker said his two hopefuls, Usainity and Ambitious Champion, had settled in well this week in their lead-up to the $150,000 Grand Prix Stakes.

Both horses are being aimed at the Queensland Derby on June 8.

Ironically, both three-year-olds are by Zed, a son of Zabeel who Baker trained. The little-known stallion is becoming a rags-to-riches story in New Zealand breeding.

Zed, a $400,000 yearling, was luckless during his two years of racing and was retired to stud. But interest in the staying stallion declined to such a level that the horse was forced to cover Clydesdale mares instead of thoroughbreds.

”He was only put to a very small stud and I think after a couple of years he wasn’t getting many mares so he went over to serving Clydesdales, but all of a sudden he’s come good and siring winners all over New Zealand,” Baker said.

”I trained the horse myself and had a lot of time for him, but he was badly injured as a yearling and again hurt as a late three-year-old which completely ruined his career and his commercial profile.”

Zed will stand this season for $4500 at a bigger and stronger stud on the North Island.

”He really suits those breeders and farmers who like to get a young horse and give them a year in the paddock so they can mature and grow,” Baker said. ”And he’ll probably be very popular this year after being on a smaller stud where he didn’t get the opportunities.”

Baker has had a successful season, headed by the performances of Australian Derby winner It’s A Dundeel.

”He’s been home in New Zealand for about three weeks and we hope to have him back in Melbourne for a race like the Cox Plate later in this spring,” he said.

Remarkably, Zed could have up to three starters in the Queensland Derby if another Kiwi – Survived – joins Usainity and Ambitious Champion in the group 1 race.

”Usainity was a terrific run here the other day and has really gone on from that run whereas Ambitious Champion scored a fantastic win at Te Rapa back at home the last time he went to the races and he’s jumping pretty much in grade for this.

”Unlike my other three-year-olds he’s a bit green and a bit raw but he’s a real stayer and I like the things he’s doing at such an early stage.

”He’s owned by Hong Kong clients who also own Ambitious Dragon, who is one of the best horses in Hong Kong, and after this bloke finishes in Queensland he’s likely to also head to Hong Kong for the rest of his racing days.”

Ambitious Champion will be ridden by Kiwi hoop Jonathan Riddell, while champion jockey Hugh Bowman will be aboard Usainity.

”It’s a nice place to be in to have two good three-year-olds both looking to run in a Queensland Derby,” Baker said.

”But this year I think you’ll find the standard of three-year-olds that are competing in the derby will be very good so it could be a very tough race to win.”

Clearly the horse to beat for the Baker pair will be the John Singleton-owned filly Dear Demi, who showed that she’s at the peak of her form at the last-start win at Doomben.

Queensland officials are hopeful that rain stays away from the huge Doomben fixture on Saturday.

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Naitanui happy to hit mark as flying billboard for city’s west

The Giants have banked on the marketing appeal of Nic Naitanui to raise interest this week but the West Coast sensation is still trying to convert members of his extended family in western Sydney to the sport.
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Unfortunately for the AFL and their newest team, the Penrith-born Naitanui calls Perth home and has no intention of resettling in his birthplace but he has plenty of relatives who live in the Greater Western Sydney region the Giants want to become their heartland.

”I’ve got a lot of uncles and aunties, a few of my cousins are still out that way,” Naitanui said.

Despite Naitanui’s status as one of the budding superstars of the competition the AFL is not the No.1 sport of choice among his family, who have their roots in Fiji where rugby is the preferred football code.

”So as well as trying to educate the suburbs and the people of the community out there I’m still slowly trying to communicate to my family what’s going on,” said Naitanui, who is a multicultural ambassador for the league. ”They’re slowly grasping the whole concept of AFL. Now that I’m playing they’ve started watching. Coming from a pretty dominant rugby background they tend to watch a lot of that.”

The sporting preferences of Naitanui’s family underscore the difficulty the AFL and the Giants have in drawing new fans to the game while also highlighting the possible impact a big-name signing will have for their cause.

Naitanui said his family rarely watched AFL games unless he was playing, but he understood why.

”If I’m someone who has watched football my whole life it’s pretty hard to switch off that and start watching soccer unless you know people who are playing or have a passion for it,” Naitanui said.

”They’re starting to watch a different variety of games but I’m not sure if it’s their No.1 choice if none of us are playing. That’s what we’re trying to convert them to and instilling in them to watch AFL a lot more often.”

Naitanui has heard stories from Giants players about the difficulties they face at school visits ”because all they want to talk about is either rugby or soccer”.

”I think we’re slowly cutting into that market, it’s a long process,” Naitanui said. ”It’s not only the kids you have to convert but the families as well. GWS are doing a pretty good job over there, I reckon.”

Despite the enormity of the task confronting the Giants, Naitanui believed having a club based in the region was vital. The 23-year-old said he would likely have pursued his other childhood sporting loves, rugby and basketball, had he grown up in western Sydney instead of Perth.

”Unless there was a GWS or another side out there I don’t think I would have been exposed to it as much,” said Naitanui, who grew up on the same street as Carlton’s Chris Yarran and Fremantle’s Michael Walters.

”If you grow up playing the same thing your whole life you want to do it, if I was out in western Sydney it would have been the rugby or basketball. If I grew up now with the Giants team there it caters for me a bit more.” The Giants, who drew a paltry 5830 fans to their last home game at Skoda Stadium, have gone to great lengths to use Naitanui to sell Saturday’s game. Not only did coach Kevin Sheedy pen an open letter to the All Australian ruckman but the Giants took the unusual step of placing highlights of an opposition player on their website. Naitanui is happy to be used as a promotional tool for the game but has ruled out any possibility of leaving the club he supported as a boy to cross to the Giants.

”It’s all about growing the game and getting supporters along,” Naitanui said.

”At the end of the day we want more people playing footy. Sheeds can do as much as he wants, I don’t mind, I’m staying put at home.”

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Hunters take no chances

NEWCASTLE Hunters celebrating their win in the Kibble Mallon cup this month. Picture Jonathan CarrollNEWCASTLE Hunters coach Trevor Gallacher said his players had more than enough to deal with in their ongoing development without allowing complacency to be an issue in their Waratah Basketball League game against winless Sutherland Sharks at Broadmeadow on Sunday.
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After splitting their road double against Parramatta and Manly last weekend to be eighth with a 5-6 win-loss record, the Hunters tip off at 3pm tomorrow. Gallacher said they could not afford to take the Sharks (0-10) lightly.

‘‘The longer they go winless, the more they will play with a nothing-to-lose attitude when they play teams,’’ Gallacher said.

‘‘Our scouting report on Sutherland says that they’re a fast-break team and a perimeter shooting team, so even a team that lives and dies by that quick offence and a perimeter game can come out at any time and have a good one.

‘‘We can’t take anything for granted with a team like that. They’re going to throw everything at us and do their best, and if we turn up expecting a walkover, we might be on the end of one.

‘‘We’re really happy with the progress that we’re making, and the players don’t want to take a big step backwards by having a poor performance against Sutherland. Regardless of the scoreline, we want to play well and we want to keep improving every week.’’

Gallacher has been cleared to coach the Hunters after Basketball NSW rescinded a technical foul he incurred in their 79-72 loss to Manly last Sunday. Had it stood, it would have been his third this season, meaning a mandatory two-week suspension.

‘‘The referees didn’t cost us the game, but there were some game-management issues which were frustrating throughout the game,’’ he said.

‘‘I crossed the line and received a technical foul, which was deserved, but Basketball NSW have responded by suggesting there were other contributing factors and this particular technical foul did not warrant the initiation of a two-week ban.

‘‘I just have to apply more caution towards the officials in future and negotiate in a more reasonable manner.

‘‘It’s part of my responsibility as a coach to learn that lesson and be more flexible to the way the officials are refereeing the game.’’

The Hunters (4-4) will try to avenge their 2012 finals elimination when they host Sutherland (3-4) in the women’s game at 1pm tomorrow.

Coach Paul Lyth said the Hunters would be at full strength, welcoming back Charlotte Bull and Chloe Mullaney after they missed their 61-37 away win against Parramatta last Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Mustangs (1-8) will try to snap a five-game losing streak when they host Bankstown (4-4) at Maitland tonight.

The game will start at 7pm, preceded by the women’s game at 5pm.

Still chasing their first win, Maitland (0-7) will have to be at their best against reigning women’s champs Bankstown.

Final Origin hurdle for Gidley

KNIGHTS skipper Kurt Gidley needs only to emerge unscathed from tomorrow’s clash with the Warriors in Auckland to be named in the NSW squad for the State of Origin series opener.
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Despite speculation Gidley may have been overlooked as NSW’s bench utility for Cronulla’s Luke Lewis, it is understood he was contacted yesterday by Blues coach Laurie Daley to tell him his name would be in the squad announced tomorrow night.

But there were apparently no such calls for Gidley’s teammates Willie Mason and Akuila Uate, who have missed the cut.

Newcastle’s only other representative in Origin I, to be played at ANZ Stadium on June 5, will be Queenslander Darius Boyd, who was reportedly interviewed yesterday by the NRL’s integrity unit as part of the investigation into the Ben Te’o affair.

Boyd and Gidley will both have to stand down from Newcastle’s daunting away game against South Sydney tomorrow week.

The Knights flew across the Tasman yesterday, where they expect to face a Warriors team smarting after a 62-6 hammering from Penrith last week – the heaviest loss in their history.

Under new coach Matthew Elliott, the Warriors have been dismal this season, winning only two of their first 10 games.

But even though fifth-placed Newcastle are coming off a resounding 44-8 win against Canterbury, their record in Auckland should ensure there is no complacency.

Last season’s 24-19 win at Mt Smart was the Knights’ only success there in their past seven visits.

“Our record over there is not that great,” Newcastle playmaker Jarrod Mullen admitted.

“I don’t know the last time we won over there, except for last year.

“We got that hoodoo off our back last year . . . it’s a day game and that definitely helps us.”

In-form impact player Adam Cuthbertson said Newcastle wanted to play at a similarly high level to last weekend, after a season of fluctuating form.

“We need to string a few games together and learn how to do that,” he said.

Cuthbertson said the Warriors were always a handful up front, regardless of their position on the points table.

“They’ve got a really good forward pack,” he said.

“They’re really big and really skilful, so it’s going to be a great challenge for our middle men, just like last week. I dare say they’ll be out to prove something in front of their home fans.

“They’re going to be hurting. They’re going to want to come out firing and turn their season around.”

Warriors centre Ben Henry has been ruled out with a season-ending knee injury. Carlos Tuimavave is expected to replace him in the starting side.

Uate is likely to start on Newcastle’s right edge, replacing the luckless Kevin Naiqama, who scored two tries against the Bulldogs.

The presence of Naiqama, Timana Tahu and Chris Houston in Newcastle’s NSW Cup side puts the onus on their first-grade counterparts to perform.

Kiwi international lock Jeremy Smith will also be eligible to return next week from a six-game suspension, adding to the options at Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett’s disposal.

KURT GIDLEY