The Purpose-Driven Game
by Pete Bodo
It appeared to be the same old story. The same old sad story. The same tale we've seen played out on courts all around the globe in this frequently, predictably cruel sport.
Samantha Stosur crept to the edge of victory against Serena Williams and peered over it. She served for the match, leading 6-2, 5-3, playing tennis so persuasive that Williams looked less like a force of nature than a victim of unnatural forces, or whatever it is that enables Stosur to hit, among other things, a too-hot-to-handle kick serve.
"Serena and I have played each other for a few times," she would say later. "At the Australian Open, she just went after the ball and played very aggressively and I didn't really get a chance to get into the match. I kind of thought, 'Okay, that's possible of happening again today.' But I didn't want to let her try and dictate the points early on, so I tried to do that straight back to her."
Looking down from her precipitous perch, Stosur got dizzy. The sight of that dazzling, shimmering blue sea of victory was too much. She began to inch back. She couldn't buy a first serve. She couldn't find the court with that lock-and-load forehand. She was broken, and we were on script: You could almost hear Serena guffawing as yet another woman who hoped she was up to the job of taking what Serena believes she owns decided that while the view there at the lip of the cliff was great, flinging herself over the rim was just too much to ask.
We've seen it before; about, oh, a thousand times.
But this time it was different.
This time, Stosur retreated, composed herself, thought things over, and ever so slowly began to inch her way back to the precipice. Little by little, with careful, measured steps, she stole back. And when she finally reached the drop-off, she swallowed back her fear, tamed her uncertainty, abandoned her reservations, and threw herself off the cliff, went cartwheeling - free-falling! - toward that sweet blue sea. She broke Serena to take a 7-6 lead in the third, and finished off the top seed at Roland Garros and World no. 1 with a confident hold to win her place in the semis, 6-2, 6-7, 8-6.
If you asked Serena about all this, she might tell you that tennis can be an unpredictably cruel sport.
For Stosur's comeback was shaped from the same clay with which Serena had crafted her own legend - a narrative built on her ability to survive the threat posed by all those women who had come close to the edge, only to shrink back. It had become almost a cat-and-mouse game with Serena: Let me see what desperate straits I can get into, only for the pure pleasure of forcing the other girl to retreat. . . Let's see if this girl has the gumption to go over the brink.
Today, Stosur had the gumption.
And there were signs, over the recent months, that it might go that way. Her win also advances the theory that no top WTA pro is safe from upset these days, not even the redoubtable Serena. Granted, this isn't the ideal surface for Ms. Big Personality, but when you pick your spots as carefully as she does these days, you can't feed the myth with quarterfinal finishes at majors. Everyone knows that Serena is the Best Player on the Planet, but even the BBP has to confirm her status with wins, and Serena now is 1-4 in tournaments this year. Isn't it just like her that the single victory was in the biggest of those five events?
It was clear from the outset that Stosur has a purpose-driven game, something that can't always be said of her fellow contenders these days. Playing the best tennis of her life, Stosur radiates commitment in every aspect, from the severe discipline she's imposed on her strokes (she's certainly saddled and broken that bucking bronco of a forehand) to her calm, almost eerily composed demeanor. She's all business, and she wants you to know it, even if those sunglasses send a mixed signal. Is this a woman seeking every possible advantage, or trying to impersonate a beach volleyball player? All the better to hide the squint, my dear. . .
Stosur's game is studied; nobody is ever going to mistake her for Evonne Goolagong or Justine Henin. And while such a fastidious game is often brittle in tight spots, or against a player of Serena's caliber, it can also be automatic - if only you can get your anxieties and tendency to think too much out of the way. Today, she was able to do that. In the first set, she weathered a buffeting in the very first game and gave as good as she got, forcing Serena into a long hold in the second game. The tone was set.
Stosur broke Serena for 4-2, and ran out the last two games. In the set, she hit 11 winners (one more than Serena) but contributed fewer than half as many unforced errors (seven to Serena's 15). She outhit and outran Serena. She did the same things, aggressive things, only better and more consistently. And she used that kick serve and penetrating ground strokes to put Serena in an unfamiliar position - back on her heels.
In the next set, Stosur was no less sharp; in a streak spanning the end of the first set and the second game of the second, she won 16 consecutive points. But she wasn't about to fool herself. "I definitely knew it wasn't over. Serena can turn things around very quickly. She started serving a lot better and playing a bit more aggressively. I knew that it wasn't over, even though I had had that run. I just tried to keep doing the same thing and then got myself in that winning position and lost it."
Serving for it with a 5-3 lead, Stosur retreated from success. And once Serena broke back, you could almost hear her thinking, That was my Serena moment; now it's time to clean up this mess.
Serena lifted her game, and you could almost see Stosur's fierce internal battle to retain her focus and form play out; she fought two opponents now, a reinvigorated Serena and the temptation to swallow the bitter pill of lost opportunity. It was right there, in her throat, like an aspirin that refuses to go down. It stayed there through the tiebreaker that Serena won, 7-2, but ultimately Stosur coughed it up and spat it out.
"I got a little bit nervous and a little bit tight, but overall, I actually felt good," Stosur said. "It's not really a pressure. I guess everything is just adrenaline and all the emotions hitting you kind of at once. I didn't really feel pressure out there playing today and just really enjoyed myself. I think if I can try and keep that in the forefront of my mind, then maybe those other things don't occupy your head so much and you can just play that next point. Just play and not worry about anything else."
I don't know what other commentators will say about it, but from where I sat there was a little more to that third set than met the eye. Stosur managed to keep her composure and move on from the blown set, and she kept her level of execution high. But Serena played a great hold game in the third set to go up 5-4, and in the next game she had a match point. The forehand she then hit missed the line by mere inches, but anyone watching - and anyone who had seen the previous set - could be forgiven for thinking that Stosur's surrender was not a matter of "if" but "when."
Yet Serena, despite holding the next game at love, suddenly looked less sharp. Perhaps it was fatigue, but in any event she took her foot off the gas. Stosur, having played so well for so long, and disinclined to die a second death on that dusty red court, capitalized. She broke Serena with a needle-threading, sharply angled backhand pass. She put that dangerous kick serve to great use in the final game, ending the match with emphasis.
She stood on the clay, free-falling toward the blue.