Amid flashy compatriots, a player quietly stays the course

Sam Stosur of Australia plays a shot in her first round match against Jana Cepelova of Slovakia during the Brisbane International tennis tournament held in Brisbane, Australia, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)

Credit: Tertius Pickard

Credit: Tertius Pickard

Sam Stosur of Australia plays a shot in her first round match against Jana Cepelova of Slovakia during the Brisbane International tennis tournament held in Brisbane, Australia, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)

The tempestuous Nick Kyrgios, with his whip of a forehand and meticulously razored etchings in his eyebrows and hair, will command some attention next week as a local in the Australian Open. As will another Aussie, Bernard Tomic, a slowly reforming wild child whose arrest in Miami in July barely derailed a season in which he broke into the top 20 for the first time. And as long as he lasts in the tournament, the elder statesman Lleyton Hewitt will be a crowd favorite in what he has said will be his final tournament.

Oh, and then there is the best Australian player of the past decade.

Samantha Stosur is the only Australian to have been ranked in the top 10 in singles within the last nine years, peaking at No. 4 in 2011. In that year, she defeated Serena Williams in the final of the U.S. Open, handing Williams one of just four losses in her 25 major final appearances.

Stosur, now ranked 27th, had her run of 6 1/2 years as the highest-ranked Australian in either women’s or men’s singles came to an end in September when she was passed by Tomic, but with the current uncertainty atop the women’s tour, she may have the best chance of any Aussie to win a major title this year. At 31, she is still younger than Williams and Flavia Pennetta, the only winners of major titles on the women’s side last year.

At the Brisbane International last week, Stosur said she felt only somewhat eclipsed by the headline-grabbing young stars.

“I’m not too far behind Bernie, so hopefully, I’m still there,” Stosur said referring to the 23-year-old Tomic. “At the end of the day, there’s still going to be expectation, and no greater expectation than what I’m going to put on myself.”

After Stosur earned her 500th career win in August, the retired Australian doubles champion Todd Woodbridge used the occasion to campaign for a player who he said the public thinks is “not doing very well.”

“I think it’s time we acknowledged we have an incredibly accomplished player that by virtue of her quiet nature doesn’t get the respect she deserves,” he wrote in a column for Tennis Australia.

In an interview last week, Woodbridge said Stosur’s personality was reminiscent of the Australians who dominated the sport for much of the mid-20th century.

“Sam’s never sought the limelight; she’s happy to do her tennis and then that’s it,” he said. “In this world of social media in sport, I think she’s a throwback to the golden age of Australian champions, in terms of being humble. You just went along and did your stuff. And the world has changed in that perspective.”

Woodbridge compared Stosur’s achievements to those of the two-time U.S. Open champion Patrick Rafter, and said her body of work had more meat to it than sizzle players like Kyrgios, who last week led an Australian pairing to victory in the Hopman Cup exhibition event in Perth.

“It’s not a flash in the pan,” Woodbridge said. “I just don’t think Australians have realized the consistency that she has played with, and that’s what I get frustrated with. You can look at a Nick and go, ‘He’s great to watch,’ and that, but he hasn’t won a tournament yet, and he’s got a lot of ground to make up before he sits anywhere near the status of what Stosur does.”

Rennae Stubbs, a television commentator and former doubles partner of Stosur’s, said one reason for Stosur’s relatively low profile was that her two best major tournaments were the French Open and the U.S. Open, which draw the least news media coverage in Australia.

“Sam has those great runs at the French, semis, finals, but it takes her winning a Grand Slam at the U.S. Open, beating Serena, to get some kind of notoriety — and I still think that she didn’t get enough after that,” Stubbs said. “Ironically, the two times that really get a lot of press from the Australian tennis side are Wimbledon and Australia. Unfortunately for Sam, those are her two worst events over the past decade.”

In 24 appearances in Melbourne and Wimbledon, Stosur has never reached the quarterfinals; she has made that round or better six times in Paris and New York.

Woodbridge said one great run in Melbourne, or even an admission of the nerves that have handcuffed her when playing at home, could change impressions of Stosur, who often hides her emotions behind sunglasses on court and unrevealing statements to the news media.

“I think Australians would love to hear her come out and say: ‘You know what? Yeah, I’ve struggled and it really annoys me that I haven’t come to grips with it,’” he said. “She could probably be a little more honest in those emotions.”

Stubbs said sexism in Australia had also played a significant role in the absence of appreciation for Stosur’s achievements.

“Sadly, I think it’s part of a very typical misogynistic world where men tend to follow more of the men’s game, whether it be any sport,” Stubbs said. “If there were more women writers, more women editors, more women buying sponsorships, et cetera, you’d have the question to be asked: ‘What about Sam Stosur? She’s been in the top 20 for so many years; why doesn’t she get more publicity?’ Sadly, Australia is a little bit more sexist than a lot of countries.”

Stosur, reacting to Woodbridge’s column, expressed a similar sentiment in August.

“I’d like to think I get some recognition,” she said, smiling. “But again, I think it’s still probably different; if I was a guy, then it would probably be more. That’s just the way society unfortunately still is at the moment.”

Stubbs said she would understand if Stosur was frustrated by the imbalanced coverage, even if it wouldn’t be in her personality to complain about it publicly.

“All of these guys get all this attention and all this publicity for all the wrong things, and Sam has always done everything right — every single thing,” Stubbs said. “She’s always trained harder than the person beside her. She’s always acted in the best of intentions.”