Ken Rosewall Arena is an intimate venue that allows tennis enthusiasts to get up close and personal with some of the stars of the game.
The Sydney Apia International, which it hosts, has developed a strong following over recent years and that intimacy plays a key role.
Every grunt, lunge, stretch and exaltation from the players is audible and the venue is acoustically, one of the best I have come across for hard court outdoor play. While the men’s draw is always solid, the women’s field is usually of the highest quality.
This year was no exception, with eight of the top twelve players in the world in attendance.
I was lucky enough to witness Petra Kvitova outclass Peng Shuai early in the draw and suffered through irritating rain delays late at night prior to the Kyrgios versus Janowicz encounter.
Unfortunately that meant I had sat dumbfounded early in the evening watching Sam Stosur experience another morale-crushing defeat at the hands of an opponent whom she should outclass.
It appears the remote chance of a leading player being slightly off their game and an upset occurring has become a far too common place for Australia’s highest ranked player.
Some raw statistics convey the obvious. Victories over top ten players and world rankings clearly show that Stosur is not quite the same player as the 2010-12 vintage.
We don’t expect her to be, the endless production line of young players from Eastern Europe and continual advancements in technology resulting in power naturally mean that as players reach thirty their future in the game becomes somewhat limited.
Only a few defeat this natural slide which potentially makes players like Venus and Serena Williams and Kimiko Date-Krumm exceptions rather than the norm.
However, the fundamentally flawed manner in which Stosur approached her encounter with Babora Zahlavova Strycova, herself approaching thirty, frustrated a parochial crowd desperately wanting our only current female singles major champion to pull out one of her big performances at home.
One of these saw her produce perhaps the most efficient and complete destruction of the Serena Williams juggernaut that the world of tennis has ever seen.
Despite a glittering junior career through 2002-04, Strycova has been somewhat of a battling pro. Not blessed with great height, physique or power, she relies on counter punching, defence and excellent court movement that allows her to retrieve more balls than most.
In sporting parlance she is a grinder.
Enter Stosur. Pumped, athletic and blessed with one of the best serves in the women’s game, she has forehand that is so guttural in its execution that its sheer power and spin is not only visually obvious but also aurally impressive.
The 5 feet 5 inch Czech chipped, poked and prodded her way around the baseline, standing so far behind it to receive serve that any chance of attack was futile. That was the point. As more and more balls came back, Stosur’s errors mounted.
Prone to a significant number of shots catching the frame of the racquet and being caught by high paying fans in the first few rows, Stosur managed, by my count, to produce at least twelve.
Her slice backhand became more and more choppy and from side on to the court the lack of penetration of that shot was obvious.
A quality slice background should knife through the court, take time away from the opponent as well as stay low enough to challenge the modern player who possesses an extremely western grip.
As the match got tighter and tighter, the backhand began to land shorter and shorter and tended to sit up in a juicy fashion for Stycova to push into a corner and launch one of her rare surprise attacks.
Stosur’s inability to employ Plan B, mainly due to the fact that she doesn’t seem to have one, has marred her career and did so again on this occasion.
The kicking serve to the backhand, particularly of an opponent like the rather short Czech, still works and when the first ball is followed by an enormous forehand the Stosur game looks solid.
Yet without the dexterity and softness of hands and the willingness to more forward and shorten points she seems strategically unsure when an opponent challenges her.
The Australian’s frustration grows in matches as she stands anchored at the back of the court hitting harder and harder while her breathless opponent scrambles, knowing full well that a mistimed shot can’t be far away as Stosur’s patience wears thin.
The tale of the tape of the two players read interestingly. The Czech has produced her best results in 2014 and a quarter final at Wimbledon is her best career grand slam performance.
Her world ranking of 25 is her best and her game style seems to almost suggest over achievement and a maximisation of the attributes she possesses as a player. She has obviously worked hard on this with her husband and coach Jakub Herm-Záhlava.
Stosur, on the other hand, has done well in big tournaments. In addition to the Everest of the U.S Open, a French open finals appearance, major WTA titles such as Carlsbad, Charlston and Osaka, plus a total of twenty finals around the globe, she has the resume of one of the best we have produced in recent times.
This makes her inability to summarily dismiss lesser opponents even more frustrating. Against the bigger names, Stosur seems to perform better. When the opponents tend to crush the ball and concede points with unforced errors she seems more comfortable.
The 2013 loss to Zheng Jie at the Australian open, the loss to Sorana Cirstea twelve months prior and other failures that hark back as far as 2009, such as one to U.S player Vania King who has never ventured inside the top fifty, all form the pattern that is exemplified by her dismal performances in her home grand slam.
Her best result at Melbourne Park, a fourth round appearance in 2010, placed her in the final 16 players in the draw.
For a player of her quality one might have expected this on at least four or five occasions considering the home conditions and support.
Other Australians have had the added pressure of an expectant Australian media yet used it to energise and punch well above their weight. Names such as Ilie, Arthurs, Dellacqua and Duckworth come to mind.
With wins against only three top ten players throughout the entire 2014 season and a descending WTA ranking of 21 the signs are there that the twilight may yet be approaching.
What lies ahead at this year’s Australian Open is unknown.
I hope Sam exorcises some of the demons and finally produces her international form on home soil. It is probably too hard to believe that she can address the mental fragility and technical flaws at this stage of her career, yet it would be great to see her play with a passion and aggression befitting a major champion.
After so many disappointments at home she might just deserve that much.