Who would be a tennis player? It is bad enough trying to cope with the stresses and strains of beating the very best in the business - and doing it week in and week out but just to make life all but impossible, you have to go and play a grand slam in your home country.
Poor Sam Stosur has been coming to Melbourne Park for the past 12 years and every time she comes here, she desperately wants to do well for the patriotic, vociferous crowds who pack any arena she graces. And every year, she goes home disappointed. She has only reached the fourth round on two occasions and last year, marching into town as the US Open champion, she fell at the first hurdle.
This year, she managed to get to the second round but, once again, she could not get any further. For two hours and 42 minutes, Stosur put the home crowd through the wringer as she slowly but surely gave way 6-4 1-6 7-5 to the dogged, battling qualities of Zheng Jie, the world No.40 from China. No matter how loud they cheered or how high they waved their banners, the patriotic punters could not drag their heroine over the finish line.
When Stosur won the US Open back in 2011, she did the unthinkable and marmalised the great Serena Williams in front of 23,000 screaming fans in the massive Arthur Ashe stadium. But all but a handful of those 23,000 were screaming for Serena, the favourite, the crowd’s darling and who was expected to win. In that sort of environment, Stosur could take comfort and support from her small gaggle of friends and supporters in the players’ box and forget about everything else. Here in Melbourne, she is obliged to take centre stage; there is nowhere to hide. It does little for the nerves and less for the backhand.
“I got tight and then you start missing some balls,” she said. “You probably think a little bit too much. You do it over and over and over again, and then, yeah, you start not wanting to miss rather than wanting to, you know, make the winner. Instead, it's I don't want to make the error. At 5-2 up in the third, double break probably is a bit of a choke, yeah.”
Stosur knew exactly what she was getting into as she stepped out into the afternoon sunshine. She had faced Zheng in Sydney last week and come away the loser in three sets. At least then she felt that she was improving: her off-season training had been interrupted by ankle surgery to remove some bone spurs and, with limited time to prepare, she could feel that she was playing better with every match, even if she was losing.
This time, though, Stosur had her chances. The first set had been a 54-minute lesson in how not to take on the likes of Zheng but, no matter. Once the second set got underway, Stosur regrouped. She tried to vary her serve, to vary her tactics and, sure enough, it rattled her diminutive rival. Continuing this ploy through much of the third set, Stosur found herself in the happy position of serving for the set. She was 5-2 up. Even if the record books showed that she had not won a match from a set down in Melbourne Park for a decade, things were looking good. And that is where it all went wrong.
Still, Stosur is not alone in crumpling under the weight of national expectation. Just cast your mind back to the days of Amelie Mauresmo. On her day, the Frenchwoman could crush the best with her athletic, powerful game and that blistering backhand. But she could never do it at Roland Garros. Not that it stopped her winning two grand slam titles: here in Melbourne and at Wimbledon.
Stosur is a fine player a very fine player but she has never allowed herself to show it in Australia. Maybe it was just never meant to be. But there are other grand slam tournaments far, far away from
Melbourne, and there the world No.9 might just be able to shake off her nerves and play the way she did in 2011 to win the US Open.