At the start of last year’s entertaining and well-received “Hit for Haiti” charity exhibition match before the beginning of the Australian Open, all those involved on court had at least one Grand Slam title on their resumes. Except one.
So when she was introduced, the best claim to fame Craig Willis, the on-court emcee, could come up with was “…from Queensland Australia, Samantha Stosur.” As if the event needed another Aussie aside from the obvious Lleyton Hewitt and Sam was the perfect choice. And though Stosur fulfilled her seeding that year at the AO before losing to eventual champion Serena Williams, many in her native Australia and around the world, still weren’t quite sure if Stosur, despite all her accomplishments on a doubles court, would only be known as that girl from Queensland who played in “Hit for Haiti”.
Fast forward a year later and Stosur can now add “French Open Finalist” to her on-court intros along with more expectation that she can do a lot better than the fourth round in her home Slam. And though in recent interviews Stosur has said she embraces the new pressure and fame earned by her breakout 2010 season, many still question if she can truly go all the way and become Australia’s latest Grand Slam champion since Hewitt.
But Stosur is not the only Aussie woman with something to prove at this year’s AO. Despite the nation’s usual emphasis on its male athletes, it could be Australia’s women who provide most of the headlines, at least in the first week of play. From the volatile Jarmila Groth, Jelena Dokic, who’s hoping for another quarterfinal run, Commonwealth Games standout Anastasia Rodionova, the veteran Alicia Molik, and AO Wildcard event winner Olivia Rogowska, anyone of them could find themselves hearing the chants of “Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi” as they face off against a top name in the second week.
But it’s that second week where Stosur, unless she gets tripped up early, will be expected to shine. With a projected seeding of #5, she will likely take on Kim Clijsters, Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki or Vera Zvonareva in a quarterfinal that, aside from her French Open final, could be the biggest test of Stosur’s career. Sure, Stosur proved she could handle the pressure of facing a big name at a Slam as she did when defeating first Justine Henin and then Serena Williams back to back in Paris. But how she will fare in a similar match in her backyard so to speak with the eyes of not only those attending in Rod Laver Arena but those around the nation on television as well? Last year, no one expected much from the girl from Queensland, so much so that Stosur and Williams’s fourth round encounter was pulled from TV screens by Australia’s Channel 7 nine minutes in to make way for the Monday night newscast. (Although, in their defense the network preempted a Hewitt match as well) This year, expect any Stosur match to be primetime viewing, something with her success last year Stosur should expect and, hopefully, relish.
Because after all the interviews and hype ends pre-AO time, the question remains — is Stosur ready for primetime? Is she really ready to step up and take her first AO title? You could ask the same question of the other favorites on the women’s side, since each has an even better chance of winning with the absence of Serena Williams this year. Clijsters, with her recent good form in Sydney this week, looks to be the player to beat even though she’s never won a Slam outside New York. Wozniacki enters with more pressure than ever to prove she’s not only a legit No. 1 but also to prove that she can even win a Slam with her defensive game. Zvonareva wants to prove she can reach another Slam final but not get overwhelmed by the moment. And finally, Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova, though never short of desire, are both hoping that another AO title is not out of their reach.
That Sam Stosur in the space of a year has gone from being the “girl from Queensland” to a Slam threat and, even more impressive to me, earned “one-name” status that’s hard to come by in the WTA, speaks to her impressive talent and likable personality. If she can handle all the expectations from her fellow Aussies along with her own in the next two weeks and show everyone what’s she capable of, well then, the sight of her receiving the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup with all eyes looking down on her at Rod Laver Arena would be some of the best primetime TV Australia’s seen in a long time.
Not that’s there’s anything wrong with Home and Away.