I was all set to write a preview of the potential Serena Williams/Justine Henin rematch and talk about all the variables that go into that rivalry, but a very quiet and calm Australian had different ideas today. When Sam Stosur took the court against Henin in their fourth round encounter, the partisan French crowd rooted for the Belgian as if she were a native. But it wasn’t enough to help Henin deal with the work Stosur put on the ball as well as her composure that allowed the Australian to hand Henin her first defeat in six years on the red clay of Paris in a 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 win that is probably the biggest of Stosur’s career.
Stosur, even with her semifinal run last year in Paris, was always considered one of the best all-court players in the game but somewhat mentally fragile especially in big moments. When she and Henin met in the finals of Stuttgart a month ago, Stosur seemed to be in control of that match but lost the thread and let Henin back in to seal the win. Many expected a tough match today, but the consensus was Henin would find a way to creep into Stosur’s head at the big moments. But that didn’t happen. Instead it was the work and spin Stosur put on the ball in the heavy and cold court conditions that got into Henin’s head instead.
Case in point. During an early game of the second set when Stosur hit a kick serve that Henin got back but then slipped on the court giving the point to Stosur, Henin got up, but then threw her racquet down in disgust which showed that the moment was getting to her. That rare display of anger from the usually steel-eyed Henin proved that Stosur was very much in the match. Stosur helped herself by consistently going for her favorite forehand which accounted for almost two-thirds of her 26 overall winners. What impressed me about Stosur was how her forehand was almost “Nadal-like” in the way it forced Henin almost to the backboard in their rallies.
Once Stosur got it to a third set, things got a little tight for the Aussie when, after going up an early break, she tossed in two double faults to give it right back to Henin. But Stosur kept up her intense backcourt game going and it was Henin who found it hard to keep up eventually handing Stosur the break back at 4-5. Stosur kept using her trademark kick serve to Henin’s backhand forcing the Belgian well off court. When the Australian hit a final overhead to close out the match, she appeared amazed at her victory but she shouldn’t have been considering the smart tactics she used all match.
In their press conferences, Henin talked about not being at her best due to the back to back matches she had to play. One can interpret that as they wish, but Stosur’s own comments on how she stayed focused throughout were more telling. “I guess that’s the goal, is try to stay calm and not get frustrated or too emotional at any point in time in the match. But it’s not always easy to do. But today I thought I handled the situation well, especially at that moment when I got the lead and then lost it again. You know, I was fighting it, but I was able to stay in control. I think that’s definitely what helped me win the match.”
Stosur’s next opponent in the quarterfinals, top seed Serena Williams, had rare praise for Stosur saying, “You can never underestimate anyone, and Sam is actually a wonderful clay court player. I think she proved that last year, and this year I think she’s only lost twice on the clay. So she’s someone you can’t overlook. She has a good chance to go all the way.”
Whether or not Stosur goes all the way probably has a lot to do with how Williams approaches their match next round. But win or lose, Stosur’s victory today confirms her status as one of the tour’s biggest stars. As for Henin, she can finally commit to the one Grand Slam, Wimbledon, that has alluded her. If her loss today helps her in that goal remains to be seen, but she must know that her title as the best clay court player in the world must be shared, at least today, with a quiet girl from Queensland.