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Understated and businesslike when she takes the court, Samantha Stosur represents a striking anomaly amidst the melodramatic, made-for-TV extravaganzas produced and directed by the WTA’s current elite.  Although scowls, sneers, and sobs provide compelling entertainment, it’s also refreshing to observe a sturdy competitor who simply plays tennis in an unruffled, methodical manner.  Dedication to the sport shines clearly from Stosur’s focused attitude, which should enable her to build upon the remarkable results that she has recorded over the past year.  Over the next three or four years, the Aussie will constitute a substantial threat in the draws at Slams and Premier events on all surfaces.  Therefore, we outline five crucial weapons in her game as well as five areas that she might wish to address in order to establish herself as a perennial contender.

Five key strengths:

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1)  serve + second serve:  Watching Stosur duel with Serena in their French Open quarterfinal, one noticed her ability to match Serena’s imposing serve with equally impressive deliveries of her own.  Like the American, the Aussie can hit all four corners of the service box and intelligently varies the placement on her serves rather than settling into predictable patterns as do many of her rivals.  Moreover, Stosur can afford to take chances on her first serve because she possesses the most formidable second serve in the WTA with the arguable exception of Serena; this heavy, spinning shot hampers the tour’s countless aggressive returners from seizing control of points immediately.  Effective on all surfaces, it has proved especially potent on clay and thus has enabled Sam to become a contender on all surfaces, unlike her flat-serving rivals.  With a deliberate but smooth technique, the French Open runner-up rarely experiences the double-fault clusters rife among the WTA’s best, illustrating not only her poise under pressure (explored below) but her reliable ball toss.  It’s infinitely easier to time this stroke and project maximum power when one’s target doesn’t veer uncontrollably around the strike zone. 

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2)  forehand:  Behind that formidable serve looms a sturdy, continually improving forehand drive, which combines velocity with sufficient topspin for margin.  More similar to some ATP forehands than the flatter WTA strokes, Stosur’s preferred groundstroke penetrates the court with consistent depth but generally maintains significant net clearance, even when she strikes it over the high part of the net.  On clay, the Aussie adroitly runs around her backhand to hit as many forehands as she can, much like a Ferrer or a Verdasco; on grass or hard courts, that ploy may prove less successful.  Even when she concedes a significant area of the court, though, Stosur generally strikes it with adequate angle and pace to prevent a deep riposte into the opening that she has vacated.  She can hit the shot cross-court, down the line, inside-out, or inside-in, and sets up for it the same way on each occasion, not permitting her opponent to anticipate and react in advance.

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3)  net play:  Long renowned for her doubles expertise more than her singles accomplishments, Stosur has a much greater comfort level at the net than her baseline-oriented colleagues, which allows her to finish points more quickly on faster surfaces.  At tournaments like Wimbledon or the US Open, this attribute should allow her to put pressure on her opponents without taking excessive risks.  Rather than pinpointing a corner or the outside of a line from the opposite baseline, the Australian possesses the confidence in her volleys to approach the net behind a strong but not overwhelming approach shot.  Whereas most WTA stars prefer the unconventional swinging volley, Stosur constructs traditional punch volleys that rely more on deftness than power.  One area that she could improve is her drop shot, a tool to which she might resort more often when pinning opponents far behind the baseline.

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4)  resilience:  After dropping a routine first set to the four-time French Open champion, Stosur might easily have been forgiven for accepting the seemingly inevitable.  But instead she wisely observed Henin’s mounting frustrations in the second set and capitalized upon the momentum shift to force a decider; there, she responded gallantly to a squandered lead by intensifying her focus and reining her shots until the Belgian faltered.  Just one round later, the Australian might have wilted following an embarrassingly ugly disaster when she attempted to serve for the match.  Although the world #1 came within a point of a signature comeback, Stosur deserves considerable credit for playing some of her most inspired tennis deep in the third set, At 6-6 and 15-30, she constructed an elegant all-court point that culminated in a breathtaking passing shot to which even a determined Serena had no answer.  Not easily intimidated, the Aussie shows her maturity by radiating a calm purposefulness that suggests her control over the situation, whether or not such is the case.  This veneer did crack a bit in the Roland Garros final and on a few other occasions such as the LA final last year, a trend that we discuss later.

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5)  fitness:  Despite the demands of the tour’s grueling schedule, the Aussie has managed to avoid any major injury over the last year even as her match totals increased.  To some extent, her consistent health stems from her clean, well-crafted technique, which doesn’t place severe stress on any area of her body.  Often entered in both singles and doubles, she plays a substantial schedule on all surfaces but is intelligent enough to know her own limits and withdraw from events like Rome when she requires rest.  Consequently, she has been able to display her highest level of tennis almost everywhere that she appears, a key factor in her rapid rise up the rankings.  After her two grinding wins over Henin and Serena, Stosur should have entered her semifinal with Jankovic physically and mentally weary, yet such was clearly not the case.  As her success continues, though, she may need to craft a somewhat more sparing schedule in order to maximize her longevity.  Stosur’s playing style does tend to age well, so don’t be surprised to see her on the court longer than others in her generation.s

Five flaws:                                                                                                   

1)  backhand:  Again distinct from most of her WTA contemporaries, Stosur lacks the symmetrical groundstroke game valuable on faster surfaces.  Her two-hander doesn’t produce nearly as much pace and depth as her forehand, forcing her to run around it as much as possible.  Although she has developed the skill of running around balls quite impressively, a more reliable backhand would not only provide her with court position but conserve energy in long matches by taking fewer steps before each shot.  During a few recent matches such as the Stuttgart final, Stosur demonstrated that she can hit through that shot with authority, so it’s unclear to us why she doesn’t do so more often.  On the other hand, the 2008 version of Ivanovic suggests that groundstroke symmetry isn’t imperative for winning Slams and other prestigious titles.

2)  return of serve:  A weapon in the Charleston final, the Australian’s return of serve can be electric at times, yet it also can disappear for extended stretches.  Occasionally, her timing can be a little imprecise or tentative, causing her to slice backhands into the net or float forehands over the baseline.  Within her entire arsenal, the return of serve is the only shot on which Stosur can make the same unforced error several times in a row.  In the uncommon moments when she exhibits tension, moreover, it tends to emerge most strikingly in this component of her game.   

3)  footwork / positioning:  Dexterous with her hands, Stosur struggles at times to position her feet in order to drive into the ball with her legs as well as her arms.  Since she can project significant power from her upper body, she hasn’t suffered markedly from this issue.  Here, Sam reminds us of the mighty ATP ball-crusher Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who likewise generates pace from his muscular upper body without necessarily thrusting his entire frame in the right direction. While off-balance hitting reveals the immense athletic abilities of both Stosur and Tsonga, it’s always preferable to maximize precision and power with a fully balanced body when striking the ball.

4)  improvisational skills:  Always more of a programmatic than an instinctive player, the Australian sometimes falters when forced to adapt to a unique playing style or an opponent who takes her out of her comfort zone.  A compelling example of this weakness, the French Open final illustrated her uncertain response when a bold returner (Schiavone, in this case) attacked her serve with unexpected audacity; in Tokyo last fall, Sharapova knocked her onto the back foot with similar tactics.  Taking the net away from Stosur also appears to discomfit the adept volleyer, for Henin and Venus managed to stifle her in Stuttgart and Madrid by winning the race to the forecourt.  Far from unusual among WTA players, the Australian’s lack of a Plan B might hamper her when she faces an opponent as aggressive (and as effectively aggressive) as she is.  Until or unless she develops some secondary options, she’ll be susceptible to a fearless shot-maker on a breathtakingly hot streak.  Such circumstances don’t occur frequently, but they happen disproportionately often in important matches, when adrenaline flows most swiftly.

5)  finals underachievement:  Just 2-7 in championship matches, Stosur has captured no title more significant than the Premier event in Charleston as of this writing.  She recalls the surging ATP slugger Soderling in her ability to defeat anyone on any given day while struggling to close out tournaments.  While the Swede’s game might embrace too many risks to fire on all cylinders throughout an entire week or fortnight, we don’t think that Stosur’s style is inherently susceptible to the same inconsistency.  It’s not so much that her level drops in finals but that she doesn’t elevate it as do most champions and many of her opponents.  When her experience as an elite singles contender grows, she’ll learn gradually how to rise to the occasion and capitalize on her opportunities. 

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Hope that you enjoyed this fifth article in our series of player profiles!  As mentioned on Twitter, we’ll return soon to outline seven reasons for the struggles of our favorite Serb…

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