Sam Stosur will play her third French Open semifinal in four years today having made the transition from clay-hater to contender on tennis’s slowest surface.
“The first time I played on a real clay court was when I was 15 in a junior team in Europe,” the 28-year-old Stosur said in a March interview. “We had six weeks on clay. I didn’t win a match and actually hated it, couldn’t stand it, never wanted to go back on it.”
Thirteen years on, Stosur is two victories away from becoming the first Australian woman since Margaret Court in 1973 to win the championship at Roland Garros, having broken through for her first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open in September.
The Paris runner-up in 2010 and a semifinalist in 2009, Stosur’s kick serve and top-spin groundstrokes, which jump up high off the clay, have helped propel the No. 6 seed into the final four without dropping a set. She faces Sara Errani, the No. 21 seed from Italy, for a place in the June 9 final. That’s followed by second-seeded Maria Sharapova of Russia against Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic.
Dominika Cibulkova, whom Stosur beat 6-4, 6-1 in the quarterfinals, said the Australian’s serve and top-spin forehand make her a particularly difficult opponent on clay.
“She played like a man, and it’s really hard to play against a man,” the 15th-seeded Slovakian told reporters after her loss two days ago. “It was driving me crazy on the court. It was really, really hard. She’s putting the ball so high.”
Stosur, who had a 4-5 win-loss record in her first five appearances at Roland Garros, said her evolution as a clay-court player has been gradual.
“As I got a little bit older and a little bit more mature and understood my tennis a bit more I realized that the surface can actually work quite well for me,” she said. “Probably the last four or five years I’ve really enjoyed playing on clay. It certainly wasn’t love at first sight by any means.”
The performances in Paris this year follow a letdown at her home Grand Slam in January, where she became the first women’s U.S. Open champion since tennis went professional in 1968 to subsequently lose in the Australian Open first round.
Carrying the weight of local expectation into the Australian swing of tournaments at the start of 2012 affected her game, Stosur said.
“It definitely surprised me how hamstrung I felt because of all that,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t play well at the start of the year and it was highlighted for me because I’m an Australian playing in Australia. If it had been a German playing in Australia maybe nobody would have taken any notice.”
For now, she’s comfortable being an Australian in Paris.
“I guess it’s just the way it is,” Stosur told reporters after beating Cibulkova. “It’s a totally different surface and time of year.”