It's pretty unusual to find a fast-court-bred Australian who is looking forward to the clay-court season, but Samantha Stosur, who raised more than a few eyebrows with her improbable run to the French Open semis last year, is salivating at the chance to slide around on the dirt.
She is a long way from a typical clay courter. Stosur grew up as a pure power player on Aussie hardcourts, with the occasional excursion on to grass. She's not a scampering backboard who can do splits while ripping passing shots on the run. Rather, she is a capable, improved player who has a far better understanding of her game than she used to. Mix in one of the tour's most feared forehands and a vicious, high-hopping kick serve, and you have a player with the capacity to pound foes into submission on any surface.
Now ranked 11th, Stosur cracked the top 10 for the first time in March. Though it's unlikely many will count her as a French Open favorite, there is no reason to count her out of another run to the second week. She's super determined and a whole lot more seasoned.
"If I don't think I can go into Roland Garros and do well, I shouldn't even be there," Stosur told FOXSports.com from the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C., where she is the fourth seed. "If you make the semis one year, you have to try and back it up. It's not a given that you will do it again, but I have to believe I can."
Stosur has had an extremely consistent first three months – not a spectacular year, but impressive if one considers whom she has lost to in the latter stages of tournaments. She reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and went down to No. 1 Serena Williams, who was experiencing a career serving day. Just over two weeks later, Stosur banged her way to the semis of Indian Wells, where former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic ran past her. The next week, she got revenge on Jankovic in Miami, only to be foiled by US Open champ Kim Clijsters in a tough two-setter. What do those player all have in common? All had to go through Stosur to win those titles.
"I am happy with my year so far, but would I have loved have done better? Sure.
"Against Serena, I didn't do much wrong and she didn't allow me to do much, so sometimes you have to just say, 'Well done,'" Stosur said. "I'm disappointed with way I played against Jankovic, but I was able to turn that result around in Miami.
"I'm reasonably happy with the way I played against Kim, too. I lost to the winners of those three tournaments, and if you do that, you can't be too hard on yourself because you aren't playing too badly."
It has taken Stosur a good long while, in tennis terms, to discover the essence of her singles game. Now 26, she played her first ITF tournament in 1998 and her first Australian Open qualifying in 2000. But it wasn't until 2005 that she reached her first singles final and October 2009 before she won her first tournament, in Osaka.
Stosur always been a standout doubles player and won French and U.S. Open titles with Lisa Raymond, but lacked a clear idea of the style that would suit her singles game.
"It think I would find it quite funny to watch myself play back then," she said of 2000. "I was only 16, I didn't understand game well -- just hit the ball hard and hope it goes in.
"It was a learning process, and I had a completely different game to the one that I play now. I knew what my weapons were and how I wanted to play, but it's a matter of understanding how you can do that, take advantage of it and how it works against different girls. I'm pretty excited about where I can improve and get to."
Stosur's journey has not been simple. She was out almost nine months from mid-2007 with a debilitating viral illness that nearly ended her career. Fortunately, she had already begun working with her coach, David Taylor, before the illness struck and he hung with her all the way. Now Australia's Fed Cup captain, Taylor has always believed Stosur could be more than just an excellent doubles player.
"He's the main factor in my realizing my potential," she said. "He's had a huge impact on me. To have someone to stick by you when you have to start from scratch again is very encouraging."
The key for Stosur on dirt will be more of what got her to the French semis last year: patience until she can get a ball she can handle and then let it rip. Unlike hardcourts or grass, where one- to four-ball rallies are frequent, the slower pace of clay forces players to work the points more often.
"On clay, it may be three or four balls more, and you have to do it over and over again and not panic or freak out if you don't hit a winner on second or third shot, because these girls are fast," Stosur said.
"It means you have to work a little harder. But my heavy topspin with my forehand and my kick serve can trouble girls on clay maybe more than on any other surface."
Among the usual Grand Slam contenders, No. 1 Serena Williams has not played since winning in Melbourne in January because of a knee injury, while two-time French finalist Dinara Safina has also been sidelined. Defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova is mired in a slump, so Belgians Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters will likely enter Roland Garros as the favorites.
Henin has won the tournament four times, and Clijsters has reached two finals there. But Stosur doesn't believe that just because Henin and Clijsters are feel-good comeback stories with healthy resumes that they will necessarily seize control of the WTA Tour again.
"They are both great champions and players and I think they will be more consistent as the year goes on, and I wouldn't be surprised if they end the season in the top 10," Stosur said. "But I wouldn't say that they are going to dominate and be far superior to everyone else."
Henin may be the only clay-court expert of her generation, but despite her considerable credentials in Paris (she has won the titles the last three times she played from 2005 to 2007 and has only dropped three sets in 21 matches), Stosur said she'll be challenged.
"Justine is in there with everyone else and has a great chance if, maybe when she walks into Roland Garros, she finds that something extra. It will be interesting to see how she does in the lead-ups, which tell a bit of a story.
"Grand Slams are different, because everyone is trying to peak for those and use the other tournaments to work things out. I wouldn't say she's an overwhelming favorite by any means."
The possibility is there for Stosur to be in that company as well.
"I've played to a very high standard all year," she said. "My first weeks on clay, I want to get some rhythm and hopefully when Roland Garros comes around I'll know what I want to do and feel good with the sliding," she said. "If I can play at the level I want to be at, I can win quite a few matches."