Slow start … Sam Stosur serves against lowly ranked Kai-Chen Chang on Monday. Photo: Wayne Taylor
The best that can be said about Sam Stosur’s first match at this year’s Australian Open is that she won it. It was more than she did at last year’s Open, more than she has done in two previous tournaments this year, more than she could manage the only other time she played Kai-Chen Chang, and more than had looked likely when Chang served for what was an excruciating first set.
But Stosur squeaked out of it in a tie-breaker, and that looked to free her, mentally and bodily, and she won the second more convincingly. But the brusque way she dispensed with post-game formalities suggested that she also saw this as a matter of survival in The Hunger Games manner. ‘‘I wasn’t necessarily expecting everything to be perfect today, and it wasn’t,’’ she said. ‘‘I did enough to get through.’’
The best that can be said of the aesthetic of this Open is that it has not yet thought to shoot off fireworks at the serving of aces, nor to string flashing lights across the net, Big Bash League style.
But it can only be a matter of time. This year’s new toy is the airing of advertisements on the centre court screen at change of ends, disabusing the remaining few who labour under the misapprehension that the Australian Open is a tennis tournament and not a trade fair. Interspersing the tuneless and toneless contribution of the Fanatics, it made the entertaining of one’s own thoughts just about impossible, which is precisely the desired effect. At least on Monday we were spared any shrieking andgrunting.
Initially, there was nervous silence. Stosur, everyone knows, strains under the burden of expectation, only slightly tempered by ankle surgery late last year and poor early season form. From the well-populated grandstands, the mute sense was that Australia expected, but would settle for hoped. In the corporate area, Australia hoped, but not until after lunch and dessert. and it remained largely empty. Even MC Craig Willis toned down the introductions, which he usually does in an epic voice, this day reset to formal.
This sense of anticipation mixed with apprehension swept over both players. In the first set, it was as if Stosur was anxious about losing, and Chang was anxious about not taking advantage of Stosur’s anxiety.
Moreover, both players had difficulty with the sun at one end of Rod Laver Arena as they angled into their serves. Especially for Chang, who had never as much as practised on this court, it would prove to be blinding.
Frankly, the first set was a mess. Stosur, flat in the feet and seemingly bound up in the shoulders and mind, laboured for much of it. Upon missing one backhand, she flung out an arm in exasperation. Occasionally, she produced a trademark Stosur forehand smack, but she could not find rhythm. Chang hit sound groundstrokes, but served as if with balloons. The difference might have been as little as the fact that when serving for the set, and again at the start of the tie-breaker, Chang had that vexatious sun in her eyes.
Immediately, it was as if Stosur’s load was lightened. From the start of the second set, she was lighter on her feet, looser in her strokeplay. She hit her groundstrokes with fresh conviction. A sense of adventure appeared in her game. The mistakes she made now were in the cause of trying to win rather than trying not to lose.
Chang, if anything, also raised her game, but Stosur’s grip would not be shaken. In the first set, more games were won against serve than with it. In the second, there were only two breaks of serve, in the first and last games, both as Chang blinked into the sun. Stosur did not face a break point, and at last she could break into a smile.
If Stosur is to make an impression in this tournament, this was merely a preliminary to the preliminaries. But the moral of the day was that still nothing succeeds like success. ‘‘No matter how good or bad you play,’’ said Stosur, ‘‘[victory] always makes you feel better.’’