Sam Stosur was taken by surprise last year, when more than two months passed without her hitting a tennis ball.
The 2011 US Open champion wasn’t injured or sick, although the tennis tour, like everywhere else, was on hold because of the worldwide COVID-19 crisis.
The real reason her racquet was put into mothballs was she and her partner, Liz, became parents in June, welcoming daughter Genevieve – known more informally as Evie – into the world.
“The weeks went by so fast and before I knew it, ‘Oh, wow, she’s nine weeks old and I haven’t hit a ball and I’ve done like 30 minutes of exercise each week, and that’s it’,” Stosur told the Herald Sun.
“I couldn’t even think about leaving and being away from her. I just didn’t want to.
“It was actually really nice not to feel that pressure to train. I’ll never get that time with her again, so I feel really lucky I was able to do that.”
That major moment in Melbourne-based Stosur’s off-court life also helped her have a realisation.
Her baby announcement was similar to that of Casey Dellacqua’s in 2013, which was also kept private, then once it wasn’t, it doubled as her own ‘going public’ moment with her sexuality.
Stosur’s friends, family and everyone on the travelling tennis circus already knew – she’d never tried to hide it – but discussing her relationship through the media was something she’d never done.
She first did that in a wide-ranging interview with former peer Todd Woodbridge in the period after Evie’s birth.
“No matter what your situation and what you do; you eventually get to the point where it doesn’t matter what anyone in the outside world thinks – as long as you’re happy,” Stosur said this week.
“If you want to share all of that or some of it or none of it, that’s totally the individual’s choice.”
Stosur is preparing to make her 19th Australian Open main draw appearance next month.
At age 36 and with a ranking now in triple digits, she knows she’s far closer to the end than the start of her stellar career. However, there’s still more to do.
Representing Australia at a fifth Olympic Games in Tokyo this year remains a goal – it would be rare territory for any athlete – while she also hopes to play at least one more Australian Open after this upcoming one.
What Stosur promises, to herself as much as everyone else, is that if she is going to commit to playing this year, then she won’t just “go through the motions”.
“That’s not what I want to do. I want to do it as best as I can – and that looks a bit different these days compared to maybe 10 years ago,” she said.
“But you do what you can in the moment and the time you’ve got.”
One challenge is her family situation.
In the lead-up to Evie’s arrival, Stosur and her partner discussed them joining her on the WTA circuit, albeit with a somewhat modified playing schedule.
Then COVID hit and sent everything into disarray. As it stands, Stosur is yet to make any scheduling decisions beyond the Australian tournaments.
“Now, because of COVID, it’s like, ‘Do you really want them travelling?’. Is that smart, with quarantine (requirements) and everything else?” she said.
“It was already going to change things a fair bit having (Evie) and now I feel like it’s a whole other layer having her and COVID, so I’m just going to have to see how I feel as the Aussie summer is coming to an end.”
What Stosur still hopes to get better at is playing more freely, especially with coach Rennae Stubbs urging her to enjoy herself more on the court.
With a career-high ranking of No.4, a grand slam singles title, six doubles championships (split between women’s and mixed) and a record 452 weeks as Australia’s No.1 female player, her legacy is cemented.
“I’ve had a great career and I’m very proud of that and now whatever I get from here is kind of like a bonus,” she said.
Even so, Stosur hasn’t been able to satisfy everyone along the journey.
She won a US Open and was runner-up at the 2010 French Open – where she also made three other semi-finals – but there’s always been a hyper focus on her never advancing beyond round four at Melbourne Park.
So has Stosur been underappreciated?
“It’s hard to answer that, and I don’t want it to sound like sour grapes or ‘What about me?’ or anything like that,” she said.
“I do feel like a little too often it’s been about ‘Sam the disappointment’ or if you lose early at the Aussie Open, you’re not so good or whatever.
“There’s been a tinge of that side of things, whereas there’s been a whole lot of positive that far outweighs, to me, any of that other stuff. I’m very proud of my achievements.”
And in Stosur’s own words, that’s what truly counts.
Test result delays disrupt Open preparations
Potential Australian Open qualifiers are waiting in hotel rooms for upwards of 12 hours beyond the expected time to receive COVID-19 test results.
The Herald Sun has obtained the fact sheets for the grand slam’s qualifying draws in Doha (men) and Dubai (women), with players required to meet strict conditions to play.
However, it hasn’t been smooth sailing in the opening days, with some players stuck in their hotel room for long periods – despite test results being expected within 24 hours – and having problems booking courts.
Tournament officials became aware of the delays and the subsequent flow-on issues and tried to mitigate the wait times with local health authorities.
A Tennis Australia spokesman said in a statement to the Herald Sun: “The local organisers have done an incredible job preparing everything for AO qualifying in a very short space of time.
“The conditions for the players in both Dubai and Doha are excellent and … we are working closely with local organisers and health authorities to ensure the process is as straightforward as possible, and always with the priority being the health and safety of everyone.
“Although there have been delays with the return of some test results, the process is generally working well and the players will all have the chance to prepare appropriately and be ready to compete on Sunday.”
It’s also understood not all tournament protocols are being strictly followed, including officials not always sanitising courts in the allocated 10 minutes between each training session.
In most cases, athletes and team members needed to return a negative PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) test before leaving their country, then were tested again on arrival.
As per the Doha fact sheet, players and their team can then travel to their hotel, where they must remain until the negative result is communicated.
Players didn’t receive tournament accreditation and weren’t able to travel to the site to train until the result was confirmed.
The rules state that any positive test after arriving means the player cannot compete in qualifying.
There was a slight variance in Dubai, where players and support team members underwent a COVID-19 screening and PCR testing – a nasopharyngeal swab – upon arrival at their hotel.
A subsequent positive test also results in the player being withdrawn, and they would be required to isolate immediately.
The Dubai fact sheet states if a credentialed attendee tests positive, they must quarantine at a Dubai Health Authority-appointed hotel for 14 days with mild symptoms, or be hospitalised if symptoms are serious.
It’s all part of the difficulties Tennis Australia is facing in making sure this year’s Australian Open, which begins on February 8 at Melbourne Park, not only goes ahead but is safe and a success.
Tournament director Craig Tiley already detailed this week how they planned to use up to 18 planes, at 20 per cent capacity, to fly international players to Australia next week.
Qualifying matches begin on Sunday.
Barty flags Australian Open lead-in plans
World No.1 Ash Barty will kickstart her bid for Australian Open glory at one of the WTA 500 tournaments in Melbourne the week before the grand slam.
It will be Barty’s first competitive hitout since losing in the semi-finals in Doha, Qatar, in late February last year after choosing not to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just one player is missing from the world’s top 50 among those contesting the women’s events at Melbourne Park, with another Australian, Ajla Tomljanovic, also a direct acceptance.
There will be three men’s events there in the same week, including the ATP Cup and two ATP 250 tournaments, with Australians Nick Kyrgios and Jordan Thompson entered but in different events.
Alex de Minaur, John Millman, John Peers and Luke Saville will represent Australia at the second ATP Cup, between February 1 and 5.
The lead-in tournaments to the Australian Open, starting on January 31, will be named to recognise key Victoria regions impacted and still facing the challenges of bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic.
The women’s events will be called the Gippsland Trophy and Yarra Valley Classic, while the men’s tournaments are the Great Ocean Road Open and the Murray River Open.
Phillip Island will be attached to the WTA event being held in the second week of the Australian Open.
Barty, who famously won the 2019 French Open, is a traditionally strong performer in the lead-in tournaments.
The 24-year-old won the inaugural Adelaide International title last year before becoming the first local woman to reach the Australian Open semi-finals since Wendy Turnbull in 1984.
Barty’s rivals include 23-times grand slam champion Serena Williams, world No.2 Simona Halep and previous AO champions Sofia Kenin, Naomi Osaka, Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber.
Both WTA events will be 64-player draws, with the top-32 ranked players split across them.
The men’s fields were divided earlier in the week, with Kyrgios pitted against the likes of Stan Wawrinka and Grigor Dimitrov, while Thompson’s competition includes David Goffin and Karen Khachanov.
Most of the world’s top-20 players are competing in the ATP Cup, but a combined 19 top-40 players are in title contention across the two ATP 250s.
Melbourne Park will be separated into three zones for all tournaments this summer, with fans able to buy a corresponding ticket.
Ticket details are still to be announced.