Tennis legend Roger Federer wasn’t his usual self as he bowed out of the Shanghai Masters quarter-finals.
A mixed Australian summer for Samantha Stosur has ended in yet another early exit from the Australian Open following a tough three-set loss to former world number one Ana Ivanovic.
Entering this enticing match of former Grand Slam champions, both of whom have failed to live up to the hype since capturing their lone major trophies not so long ago, all the momentum appeared to be behind the 29-year-old Queenslander after she thrashed recent Sydney champion Tsvetana Pironkova in the second round.
But her opponent, 26-year-old Ivanovic, also entered this match on the back of a big win, having defeated Annika Beck for the loss of just three games in less than an hour.
More importantly, the Serb entered the Australian Open on the back of a tournament victory in Auckland, won by defeating Venus Williams in the final.
Now, she will have the chance to claim a rare double over the Williams sisters when she faces Serena on Sunday after coming from a set down to send Stosur out of the tournament.
Ivanovic will enter that match riding not just an eight-match winning streak, currently her longest since she won the French Open in 2008, but also with the knowledge that she is playing her best tennis since that title run.
At her peak, she can beat just about anybody, and this has been proven many times throughout her career. Also, even when her confidence is down, as has been over the last few years, she still has the capability to pull off the odd surprise.
And after a few quiet years on the Tour where titles and deep results at major tournaments were few and far between, it appears as though this year could mark the year in which she returns to her very best form.
Her unbeaten record and her resurgence will be tested on Sunday against Serena Williams, against whom she is 0-4 (and 0-8 in sets) against but with two of those losses having been closely contested.
Ivanovic may want to take a leaf out of Sabine Lisicki’s book, who after defeating Stosur in similar fashion to this match at Wimbledon, went on to upset Williams in the fourth round before ultimately losing in a flood of tears to Marion Bartoli in the championship match.
The key to challenging Serena is not to feel scared or intimidated, and just to relax and play your own game. Many of her opponents tend to give up after a few games, being forced to play catch-up for the remainder of the match.
This has been the case in Williams’ three matches so far here at the Australian Open, whereby she breaks her opponents early in matches, and from there never relinquishes the advantage.
Sometimes the American great can have an off-day, such as the aforementioned loss to Lisicki at Wimbledon and when she suffered a pair of meltdowns at the US Open, most famously in 2009 when she was defaulted from her semi-final against eventual champion Kim Clijsters for threatening a linesman.
The key to Serena’s resurgence from a near-death experience in mid-2010 has been her relaxed approach to the game under the tutelage of Patrick Mouratoglou, who took her on following a first-round loss at the 2012 French Open.
Since then, the American has won over 100 matches have lost just five matches, while also capturing 16 titles, including the Olympic gold medal in 2012.
To the match now, and after losing the first set in a close tiebreak against Stosur, it appeared as if the Serb was heading for the exit gate, given that the Australian was 16-0 after winning the first set at the Australian Open.
It’s an impressive statistic given Stosur has never (and now probably never will) reached the quarter-finals of her national Grand Slam tournament, a hoodoo that extended courtesy of the final result.
Stosur took that first set after rain started falling on Rod Laver Arena, but it was somewhat of a relief given the heatwave that had occurred during the week; these weather conditions led to fans coining the term “The Australian Oven”.
The untimely downpour forced the delay in play, during which Stosur had a set point at 8-7 up in the tiebreak. Upon the resumption of play, Stosur would eventually take the opening set, requiring seven chances to do so.
But from there it would all unravel as Ivanovic would improve on her serve, breaking Stosur once to take the second and then twice in the last to ultimately take the match. Her biggest weapon, the forehand, was what kept the Aussie on the back foot in those two sets.
Very frustratingly for Stosur, it marked the eighth consecutive Grand Slam in which she has lost a match in three sets, a streak which started with an unexpected loss to Sara Errani at the 2012 French Open.
Conversely, it was Ivanovic’s first victory from a set down at the Australian Open since her memorable semi-final against Daniela Hantuchova in 2008, in which she lost the first eight games of the match before the Slovak imploded.
And so that ends another disappointing Australian summer for Samantha Stosur, whose well-documented struggles at home, but not abroad, is almost exactly the opposite of what Bernard Tomic is enduring.
Whereas Tomic continues to struggle to go deep at major tournaments outside of Australia, it’s in the country where he plays his very best tennis (this year’s controversial first round retirement aside).
It’s just unfortunate that, because Tomic is regularly unseeded at these important tournaments, he risks drawing higher-ranked opponents in early rounds, such as this year when he drew none other than Rafael Nadal in the opening round.
The last time he did not have to face either Nadal or Roger Federer in an early round match at the Australian Open, was back in 2010 when he lost to Marin Cilic in a five-setter that did not finish until after 2:00am in the morning.
It was after that loss in which Tomic criticised the tournament organisers for putting him on so late, given he was just 17 years old at the time.
Back to Stosur now and while her conqueror Ivanovic goes on to tackle “Mission Impossible” in the fourth round (in other words, trying to plot the downfall of Serena Williams), Stosur will be left to dwell on yet another failure on home soil.
In an attempt to overcome her Australian curse, she overhauled her pre-Open schedule and opted for guaranteed match practice at the Hopman Cup, as well as participation at the lower-profile tournament in Hobart.
The result of that was mixed – she endured a winless singles campaign in Perth but did reach the semi-finals in Hobart, marking her best result at any Australian tournament since 2005.
It was after the latter result in which she entered the Australian Open with moderate expectations, but the difficult draw she was faced with meant that her tournament could have been over by the third round.
And so it was, after she was the student of an Ana Ivanovic forehand masterclass.
If Ivanovic does the unlikely, defeats Williams and goes deep in the draw, Stosur will be left to rue her luck, like she did after watching Lisicki go on to make the final after defeating her at Wimbledon last year.
It’s likely the Serb can emulate a similar run, given some giant killers’ runs have come at the expense of Australians, such as when Lleyton Hewitt fell in the third round in 2007 to eventual finalist Fernando Gonzalez’s forehand masterclass, and in 2008 when he fell to the eventual champion Novak Djokovic in the fourth round.
Not only that, Italy also knocked Australia out of the 2006 FIFA World Cup in controversial circumstances en route to eventually winning the World Cup.
Italy’s robbing of Australians in world sport also extended to women’s tennis when, in 2010, Francesca Schiavone, and then Sara Errani in 2012, denied Stosur the craved Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
And in a lesser case, Andreas Seppi also knocked Lleyton Hewitt out of the Open after saving a match point in the opening round, only for the Italian journeyman to later be knocked out himself in five sets by Donald Young the following round.
Australia were also robbed of the 2003 Rugby World Cup when Jonny Wilkinson booted a late field goal to win England the title at the expense of the host nation.
But now, time is running out for Samantha Stosur to capture an unlikely second Grand Slam as her career winds down. She will be 30 at the end of March and with the notable exception of Serena Williams, it’s unlikely anyone else will win a Slam after that age.