How much of a difference do a few extra matches – and wins – make to a player’s psyche going into a major tournament?
You should ask Sam Stosur, who would tell you that it does absolute wonders for confidence.
The proof is in Stosur’s relatively untroubled run to the third round at Australian Open 2014, her best performance at Melbourne Park in three years. A mighty significant result, given “untroubled” has rarely been an applicable adjective for Stosur’s recent campaigns at her home Grand Slam event.
It’s been covered ad nauseum, but here’s a little refresher. In 2012 and 2013, the former world No.4 and 2011 US Open champion played scratchy, tense tennis in falling early at tune-up events in Brisbane and Sydney. That paved the way for scratchier, nervier tennis on Rod Laver Arena.
Some of it could be attributed to the burdensome weight of hometown expectations. Ankle surgery to remove a bone spur leading into the 2013 season didn’t help matters either.
Whatever the causes, it resulted in a disappointing first round defeat to Sorana Cirstea in 2012, and a devastating second round collapse the following year against Zheng Jie from 5-2 up in the third set.
On to 2014, and Stosur’s radically different approach.
The Queenslander eschewed her hometown event in Brisbane for the Hopman Cup, a move guaranteeing her three singles matches. Sydney was bypassed for the low-key Hobart International, where, after surviving two three-set battles in her opening rounds, she ultimately won through to the semifinals.
As a result, she entered this year’s Australian Open with seven matches under her belt, and more importantly, three wins.
And Stosur has appeared transformed.
“That's the way you want it to be,” the popular Aussie remarked on her progression throughout the summer.
“As much as you want to be playing your best tennis at the Hopman Cup or Hobart, you want to peak, as they say, at the right moment. I don't know if I peaked, but my tennis is getting better, it's moving in the right direction.
Indeed, Stosur has continued to improve as the Australian Open has worn on.
In her first round match against Hobart conqueror Klara Zakopalova, Stosur overcame some tense moments to progress 6-3 6-4. But what was most notable was her poise; rather than panic as in previous years, she was content to play more patient tennis, chipping away at a 1-4 second set deficit and capturing five straight games to win.
“I knew she was going to hit some winners, she was going to play some really good points. I also knew if I didn't have a shot and I kind of stayed in there, used my slice … then I was going to be able to get myself back in the point even if I was down,” Stosur said.
In her next match, against last week’s Apia International Sydney champion Tsvetana Pironkova, the result was never in doubt.
Despite the Bulgarian being somewhat hampered by a leg injury, Stosur’s devastating game – her forehand in particular – was in full flight, and she never wavered.
Stosur even freed up and played better as she got further in front, buoyed by the home crowd’s support as she romped to a 6-2 6-0 victory.
“It was a great crowd. Fun to play out there,” she said.
“When you're playing like that, the scoreboard is ticking over the way you want it to, it makes it all the more enjoyable. They get behind you.”
And so to the third round, where, unlike her 2011 campaign when she was surprised by then-unheralded Petra Kvitova – who would later that season go on to win Wimbledon – she finds herself up against Ana Ivanovic, a player she’s won four of seven matches against.
Not that the Serb won’t present a tough challenge. In their last meeting in Sofia in November, Ivanovic won in three sets.
But looking for a good omen? In their only previous meeting at Melbourne Park, Stosur triumphed in straight sets.
“I think that preparation in all those matches that I was able to play in those two previous events have really helped me play this well up until now,” Stosur observed.
“Hopefully I can keep building on what I just did to Friday's match and, yeah, really enjoy it out there and have fun.
“I'm looking forward to it. I am happy to be in the third round. I want to keep going.”