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.

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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