"He just took a lot of time to sit down and talk about playing under pressure at the Australian Open" ... Sam Stosur's long-time coach David Taylor on Pat Rafter's chat with Sam Stosur. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Sam Stosur's long-time coach David Taylor has always admired Pat Rafter for his problem-solving skills on the tennis court, and it might be that the Davis Cup captain has helped, in some small way, to address the riddle of Stosur's enduring struggles in Australia. Quietly, privately, the two former US Open champions practised - and chatted - twice in Sydney last month. Not for the first time, but perhaps at a good time.
''Pat did very well getting the best out of himself, and he loves tennis, and I think those sort of qualities can have a positive effect on someone like Sam,'' Taylor said after Stosur's 7-6 (7-3), 6-3 defeat of Taiwan's Kai-Chen Chang, which was her first on her home circuit following five consecutive losses dating from last January.
''The main focus was the problem-solving he was able to come up with in his tennis, and I think he's famous for that,'' Taylor said. ''They spoke at length, and I was more of a spectator for those sessions, and it was good.
''It was just a couple of random hits, no press. He came on his own, two racquets, wanted to have a hit, but it's not as though he's coaching Sam Stosur now or whatever. He just wanted to help out, and that's why I really appreciated it, because he didn't want anything from it himself, he just actually took a lot of time to sit down and talk about playing under pressure at the Australian Open, coming back to Australia when he'd won the US Open, just really great things that I probably can't offer Sam and someone like Pat can.''
What role it played in a just adequate but hugely important Stosur performance on Rod Laver Arena on Monday, who can know? But, after a scratchy first set that both players failed to serve out when they had the chance, the ninth seed completed a victory she greeted with both happiness and relief. It has been a while since Taylor has seen the ninth seed smile quite so broadly. What was just a start was also a much-needed change of fortune.
''No matter how good or bad you play, a win always makes you feel better,'' said Stosur, who was toppled by Romanian Sorana Cirstea in her opener last year and had not won a match in Australia since the first round in Brisbane last year. ''I definitely feel like I improved throughout the last couple of weeks coming into this match. Obviously it's hard to necessarily prove that when you're not winning those matches. But I did feel better, and I think that showed today.
''I still think there is a load of room for improvement at the moment, but it's just the start of the tournament. Hopefully each match I can get a little bit better. You know, the next round is going to be very tough, and I will hopefully play better again and go from there. We'll see.''
Stosur said she was hoping the result would loosen her up to play more freely, her serve having improved over the length of the 102-minute match. She is still feeling the remnants of a five-day-old cold but also feeling vastly better in most respects heading into her Sydney International rematch with China's Zheng Jie on Wednesday.
She has received more advice than any agony aunt has given over recent weeks, but claims not to have read any papers or watched any news.
''I just did what I normally do - get out on the court and practise hard and do the things that usually work for me. It's worked for me everywhere else so it should work here too,'' she said on court.
Later, she added: ''Everyone is entitled to think what they think. But of course I have got a group of people around me I trust all year round not just during the summer of the Australian Open. Maybe some people had valid points, but at the end of the day, I'm always going to go back to who I know and who I trust the most.''
At the top of that list is Taylor, who said he and Stosur shared a level of confidence after her three-set loss to Zheng in Sydney that neither had experienced at any point last January. ''Even though she lost serve very early in the match I never felt actually panicked. I always knew she'd win today; I was actually very, very confident, I really was,'' the coach said.
''I just felt what she'd done in practice, and her mental approach today was very good. There wasn't that same level of anxiety. Even though the tennis wasn't that good she knew she could find enough good tennis to win, and they're the signs I'm looking for if you're really going to do well, not just get through one or two matches.''