Paul Annacone recently suggested that players should ‘love their home tournaments.’ The question was prompted in part by the well-publicized struggles of Samantha Stosur, the U.S. Open champion who has never been past the round-of-sixteen in Melbourne. Today she followed early exits in Brisbane and Sydney with a surprise defeat to 59th-ranked Sorana Cirstea, 7-6 (2), 6-3.
Stosur’s two previous victories over Cirstea came in 2009, the Romanian's career year in which she reached the quarterfinals of the French Open and a career-high ranking of No. 23. From the outset, it was clear that this was going to be a different contest and a different Cirstea from the one who dropped out of the Top 100 in 2010. Cirstea double-faulted away her serve at the beginning of the match, but broke to love for 2-2 with her most significant tactic of the day: Going for broke on Stosur’s serve with huge, slap returns from behind the baseline. Cirstea’s quick-release groundstrokes have always been fearsome when she makes more than she misses, and although Stosur broke again to lead 4-3, the combination of and a noticeable lack of feel—particularly on the backhand—and Cirstea’s all-out attack meant she was unable to forge ahead. Stosur held twice to force a tiebreak, but on her first service point Cirstea came to net off an excellent return and put away a neat volley winner for the mini-break. Stosur got back onto level terms as Cirstea framed a forehand, but she failed to win another point.
Any top seed can run into an inspired early-round opponent, but champions usually find a way to put them off their game, and Stosur was unable to do that today. Reading the Australian’s serve expertly, Cirstea cracked more aggressive returns from far back, breaking to move ahead at 3-2. As the crowd Rod Laver Arena crowd attempted to lift Stosur, she tried to match Cirstea’s returns with aggression of her own, but Cirstea continued to serve brilliantly—out-acing Stosur for the match, eight to three—and hit deep, repeatedly forcing errors as the Australian scrambled to transition from attack to defense. Continually hampered by her error-prone backhand, Stosur found herself on the brink of an embarrassing exit at 15-40, 3-5 down. She saved three match points, but Cirstea had the bit between her teeth, hitting a scorching forehand winner on the run—an early contender for best shot of the tournament—and took her fourth match point as yet another deep return drew an error off Stosur’s forehand.
It was a composed, brilliant display from a player once touted as one to watch. Cirstea hit 28 winners to Stosur’s 12, perhaps reaping the benefits of playing and winning a number of ITF tournaments last year. The challenge now becomes to create some consistency, always her bugbear. Stosur, meanwhile, will have to face the press and public of her native land. Clearly, learning to love playing at home remains a distant goal.