Samantha Stosur remembered being a young teenager in Australia and insisting to her parents she would not leave for school while fellow Aussie Patrick Rafter played at the US Open because she had to watch every point.
Rafter won the US Open men’s title in both 1997 and 1998 and was inspiring to the young Stosur.
Now 14 years later, Stosur will likely be an inspiration to another generation of young tennis players and has something else in common with Rafter.
They are both US Open champions.
Stosur, the No. 9 seed, played the best match of her life, staying consistent, dictating with her forehand, minimizing errors and kept fighting to stun the 13-time Grand Slam champ Williams, 6-2, 6-3, and win her first career Grand Slam title.
With the way Serena Williams had romped her way through her draw at the 2011 US Open, with straight-set, dominating wins over No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and No. 4 Victoria Azarenka, among others, to many people it seemed a forgone conclusion that she was going to win her fourth US Open title over Stosur.
Stosur, 27, for her tremendous fitness, power and spin, had been to just one previous Grand Slam final, and the biggest questions about her game surrounded her ability to fight and compete with just two career WTA titles to her name, despite a great game.
Consider those questions answered.
“I've played matches where I feel like I played lights out, can't miss a ball, and it's fantastic, but to do it under these circumstances in this kind of final against a player like Serena, for sure I'm gonna think it's one of the best days of my career, of my life of playing,” Stosur said.
“After that first set, I kind of sat down, and I could feel my heart pounding out of my chest, and I thought, OK, I'm a set up now; I've got a chance to win one out of the next two, and I've got a chance,” she added.
Her US Open victory is the first for an Australian woman since Margaret Smith Court, the all-time Grand Slam leader with 24 titles, won the US Open in 1973. No Australian had won the US Open in 10 years, in fact, with Lleyton Hewitt winning the last back in 2001.
“To now be in that same, you know, round as those guys, who were able to win and make Grand Slam finals, it's probably I can't even describe it,” Stosur said of Australia’s rich tennis history, including women like Court and Evonne Goolagong. “I guess it's a little bit overwhelming because it's something I've always wanted to try and achieve. You never know if it's gonna happen if you're thinking about it when you're 10 or 11 years old.”
Stosur’s victory was historic all the way to the final point, as she played the longest singles match ever recorded at the US Open with a three-hour, 16-minute victory over Nadia Petrova in the third round and then played a 32-point tiebreak in a three-set win over Maria Kirilenko, the longest recorded tiebreak ever in a women’s Grand Slam singles match.
Serena credited Stosur’s power and outstanding play and thought she deserved to be the US Open champion.
“She was cracking them today. She definitely hit hard and just went for broke. I think sometimes a lot of people were putting me as the favorite, and I definitely was trying not to put myself as the favorite,” she said of Stosur. “I was like, it's anyone's game, as you can see as a result today.”
This was Stosur’s first time entering a Grand Slam final as the underdog, as she had been favored to win the 2010 French Open over Francesca Schiavone after advancing to the final as the No. 7 seed (and beat Serena on the way to the final) but could not convert, falling in straight sets.
She thought that actually helped her stay relaxed this time and do her best.
“I think I was able to draw on a lot of that experience from the French Open. I had to believe I had a chance to win. I think obviously having two victories over her in the past definitely helped me feel that it was possible,” she said of her previous wins over Serena. “I knew that I had to go out there and play well and actually do it, but I think having those victories in the past for sure made me feel a little bit more comfortable.”
After Paris, Stosur had wondered if she would ever get another chance to win a major. Her early results in 2011 did not help the thinking, as she lost in the third round of the Australian Open, the third round of Roland Garros and then was upset in the first round of Wimbledon, to a player ranked No. 262 in the world.
Despite reaching her career-high ranking of No. 4 in February, Indian Wells, Miami and Charleston were rough tournaments for her, as well, and she had turned to her sports psychologist, Ruth Anderson, for some help. By the time she played in Stuttgart shortly after then, she felt like her good tennis was back and after the rough Wimbledon, had a good summer, reaching the final in Toronto.
“At the end of the day, I had to believe that I was gonna feel like I could play my best tennis again, and I think to realize that it's not all gone,” she said. “ You've just got to get over that mental hurdle and those battles in your own head during matches that things aren't going so well. It takes time. It's probably all things I already knew, but for someone to talk about it maybe in a different way, say it in a different way, makes you realize things.”
The US Open had not been her best tournament, either, having never advanced past the second round in Flushing Meadows last year, when she made the quarterfinals. But Sunday, her kick serve bounced around Serena’s shoulders, she was able to hit her strong forehand as Serena’s errors mounted, especially in the first set.
“Today I was able to step in and hit my favorite shot (forehand) nearly off every single one and really put her under pressure every time she missed a first serve,” Stosur said. “I think that was big. Maybe that made her feel a little more pressure to start making more first serves, and it's a little more difficult. And on serve, I felt like my percentages were good. I hit the right spots at the right time and tried to vary it as much as I could.”
Serena’s comeback this year had been well documented from serious health problems stemming from a torn tendon in her foot last summer that kept her off the court for nearly a year, including suffering a pulmonary embolism and a hematoma earlier this year.
However, people might forget a few years back that Stosur rebounded from her own serious health issues. She had been a solid singles player on the WTA Tour and an even better doubles player, reaching No. 1 in the world with partner Lisa Raymond in 2006 and winning the US Open doubles title in 2005.
In 2007, she contracted Lyme Disease, which caused viral meningitis, and she was hospitalized towards the end of the WTA Tour season. She lost in the first round of the US Open that year and was off the tour for eight months. It made her extremely weak, robbing her of her trademark strength, and she could barely hit a tennis ball at times.
But she was determined to return to tennis. Her singles ranking dropped out of the top 150 and had to begin again by playing ITF Circuit events and decided to focus on improving her singles game.
“I always tried to believe that it would be possible to come back from that, and I was very lucky that I did recover very quickly and get back on the court and do what I wanted to do,” she said of her illness. “So if anything, it kind of made me open my eyes more that you don't necessarily always get a second chance. I wanted to take every opportunity I had, and I have now been able to fulfill that.”
The results have paid off, and she played the best tennis of her career this fortnight and the best since Paris last year, fulfilling the dream she had since she first starting playing tennis 20 years ago and no doubt serving as the same role model and inspiration to seven-year-olds around the world that Rafter was to her.
And she hopes this is just the beginning of being this dominant and competitive.
“I guess it's all part of just becoming a more complete player,” she said of the improvements in her game. “I guess to be the best and to do some of that, you have to almost have everything. Fortunately for me, I was able to do that today and throughout the two weeks.
“For sure it will just reinstate that belief and confidence in myself,” she added of her victory. “Hopefully this is the first day of a new beginning for me, I guess, as a player.”