By Matt Cronin
FROM THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA OPEN IN CARLSBAD- Before she toppled a slow and erratic Victoria Azarenka 6-3 6-2 to win her first title at the Southern California Open on Sunday, Samantha Stosur’s last title had been her most important one, the 2011 US Open title, which somewhat remarkably was her last.
She won her maiden title in Osaka in 2009, and about six months later grabbed 2010. Charleston. But it would be another year and half before she raised the US Open trophy with her shocking victory over Serena Williams in the final. That was 23 months ago, nearly two years gone.
So few expended her to win Carlsbad, not when she looked out of sorts in losing to Olga Govortsova in her opening match at Stanford. After that defeat she put in a call to Octagon tournament director Alastair Garland and requested a wild card. It was not an easy decision, because as she noted after her win over Azarenka, she didn’t want to jinx herself.
In 2011, after another lousy Wimbledon, she traveled to Stanford and took an early loss to Sabine Lisicki at Stanford. But instead of playing Carlsbad, she decided to train for week. That paid off in Toronto where she reached the final, where she fell to Serena Williams. A few weeks later, she took down the might Serena in the final of the US Open.
So one could imagine her thought process after she went down to the free swinging Olga Govortsova at a week and a half ago at Stanford. She had not reached a semifinal in 2013, but players are creatures of routine and she thought for more than a few moments about 2011 and how that path to Grand Slam glory worked out for her. But she also knew she needed matches so she went with her head rather than her gut.
Clearly that was the right call as the 29 year old won her first title in nearly two years. “I knew that that was the past,” Stosur said. “My coach David Taylor and I] spoke about all the pros and cons. You can practice all you want, but at some point you got to put it into play in matches. That’s why I came, and obviously now very, very pleased with that decision.”
Azarenka came into the final with an 8-0 record again her, but Stosur had noted after her semifinal win over Virginie Razzano that she believed she could finally get over the Belarussian. She had played her very close at the 2012 US Open and at 2013 Rome. If she could get in position to win, then it would be a matter of closing, which in her case, would be to find way to break and then serve massively.
That is exactly what Stosur did very well, although it should be said that Azarenka was way off her game as she only struck 11 winners, committed 32 unforced errors and only converted 1 of 12 break points opportunities.
“I think I was taking too many wrong kind of decisions or too risky decisions when there was no need to be risky,” Azarenka said. “I didn’t try to sometimes stay in the rally. I just wanted to make what sometimes I can make with eyes closed. Today I didn’t do it with open eyes. It’s just a little bit of stubbornness that worked a little bit against me today.”
Azarenka did give credit to Stosur and well she should have. Time and time again while facing break points she came up with massive serves, many of the into the Belarussian’s body. Only a couple of returns were put back into pay, which is incredible given how well Azarenka usually returns.
“I think that was a really big part of the match,” Stosur said. “That first set she did have lots of opportunities. I think nearly all of them except one I hit a really good first serve in and she didn’t make the ball into play.
So that’s something I have to be very happy with, to be able to step up to the line under that pressure and hit the serve where I want to, how I want to time and time again. I know what it feels like not to be able to break serve when you have opportunities, and it gets pretty frustrating.”
Stosur also did something else extremely well — she broke serve in every game she had the opportunity to do so. That’s the very definition of being advantageous
“That’s great. I guess it’s kind of the opposite of what she had,” she said. “Maybe the fact that I was able to hold that serve, that kind of gives that you little bit of extra lift when you get the opportunity. Having not beaten her before, I know how important every single opportunity is. I think in Rome I was up a break a couple of times in a set and let that go. I knew even though you’re up a break you can’t relax and just rely on always trying to hold serve. You got to break as soon as you get a chance.
It is way to early to begin picking top drawer US Open contenders as there are two huge events still to be played at the Rogers Cup in Toronto and Cincinnati. Before her loss to Stosur, Azarenka had a 28 match winning streak going on outdoor hard courts, so if the sore back that caused her to pull out of Toronto heals (and the knee and hip injuries that suffered at Wimbledon also stop effecting her) she will be one of the main contenders, regardless if she plays a match before the doors open in New York.
But at the very least, the Australian showed that if she is kicking up big serves and controlling the court with her high hopping, nuclear forehand, that she cannot be ignored this week in Toronto, or in a few weeks in New York. She may not be consistent enough to rack up one title after the next, but she does have the capacity to put together a fantastic six weeks of play. She’s done it before and has the possibility of doing it again.
“Obviously this is the lead‑up to the US Open and that’s where everyone want to peak,” she said. “I think this is a huge boost for me. I haven’t had great results for really all year, so to be able to bounce back especially from last week’s first‑round loss and play better and better each day and come away with this is, really exciting and a good boost going into the last Slam of the year.”