As Sam Stosur’s ranking trickles down into the lower reaches of the top 20, the European claycourt season has come at the ideal time for the three-time French Open semi-finalist and 2010 runner-up. She is aware of the numbers, naturally, but also of contemporaries Jelena Jankovic and Serena Williams, who fell before rising again.
A month after her 30th birthday, Stosur is 19th, 15 spots below her peak of just over three years ago. Then, she was the reigning US Open champion, celebrated as Australia’s first female grand slam winner in three decades. Now she is labouring, at 11-9 for the season, having not strung together consecutive wins since the Fed Cup mismatch against a 10th-string Russian team almost two months ago.
Last weekend, she was beaten by Andrea Petkovic (quite badly) and world No.7 Angelique Kerber (more honourably) during the 3-1 loss to Germany in Australia’s long-overdue Fed Cup semi-final. After a few extra days at home, Stosur left on Wednesday for Portugal to reunite with coach Miles Maclagan for the first of three lead-up events before returning to what, overall, has been her most successful grand slam.
"If I can pick up some points along the way, that would be nice going into the French but, at the end of the day, I just enjoy going into Roland Garros," says Stosur.
"The first time I step into that centre, I feel good, I know that I can play well there, and I think it's just a matter of believing in myself, and going out there and being free and allowing things to happen. So it is a time of year that I really enjoy, and with only four tournaments on the red clay, I want to try and make the most of that."
And, probably, needs to, for there are quarter-final points to defend from the premier mandatory event in Rome, as well as a third round at the French, where the ninth seed lost in three sets to Jankovic. It is her first European outing with Maclagan, who succeeded David Taylor at the end of last season, yet Stosur insists that she is not getting "too stressed" by recent events, pointing to five close three-set losses from her past six defeats.
Still, it must be hard to be inexorably drifting down, quite some time after she last moved up? "Ah ... yes, I guess in little ways it is but also, having said that, I think I can look at a lot of players in the top 10, top 20, not all of them have been there the whole time," she says. "Even Jelena [Jankovic] fell out a fair way, and she's back to [No.8] in the world again, Serena's been up and down, [although] we know Serena's probably the greatest ever.
"I obviously don't want it to happen, but even though it has, I don't think that's any reason to think 'oh, jeez, it's all done and dusted, and I'm not gonna get back there'. I do believe I can get back there. I'm not the first person to have been in the top 10 for a few years, who's fallen out, and trying to get back, so I think that's something that you can think of and know that 'OK, well other players have done it, there's no reason why I can't, either'.''
Fed Cup captain Alicia Molik noted in Brisbane that Stosur had played her second match with far more freedom, the three-set loss to Kerber notwithstanding. "I was tremendously happy with the way Sam played and committed herself on court, such high level of tennis out there. Incredibly physical level of tennis, just a great display."
There are, says the Queenslander, no issues with Maclagan, who has gained a clearer perspective of what needs to be done during their months together, and is emphasising the need to "just try and take advantage of my good shots".
"I feel like I'm setting up points well and then maybe I'm just letting a few opportunities go by.
"I don’t know whether it's staying up on the baseline a little bit more, or seeing that short ball a little earlier to be able to move in and take advantage of what I'm able to do, I think sometimes I probably play well, impose my game on players and then almost let them off the hook a little bit, so it's just trying to keep pushing for that, and finishing it off, not kind of just doing it halfway."
If there is a scrap of silver lining, it may be that Australia's only French Open finalist of either sex in the past 35 years has never sought the spotlight, nor been particularly comfortable in it, and concedes with a smile that, no, she will not be prominent among the first wave of contenders for this year’s Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. Which is just fine.
"It doesn't faze me," she says. "I know what I'm going to be capable of, and obviously I want to do as best I can, so we'll see. The first couple of rounds are usually the hardest for me, and if I can get through those, the confidence starts building and you feel like you're playing well and playing better each day, then you never know. But it's another grand slam, it's never an easy prospect."
Stosur declines to nominate either clay or the US Open hardcourt as her favourite surface, but accepts that she is perhaps more intimidating on the red dirt than elsewhere when she is at her best and moving well on a warm spring day, the ball flying through the air and jumping off the court with her heavy topspin.
So, now, to find her best again, play her way back into some form by working as diligently as she always does, and trusting that the results will come again, as they have for Jankovic and others. Stosur’s body is strong, and her drive undiminished, even if the WTA’s computer is not as positive as the pragmatic Australian remains determined to be.
"I look at the rankings each week but I'm not one to calculate points and say 'I've got to do this to get to there, or if I don't do that I'm going to be out of the 20'," Stosur says. "I obviously know what the situation is and I definitely want to try and get my ranking higher but, at the end of the day, I can't do that if I don't win. It's pretty simple, tennis, really: if you win, you go higher, and if you lose, you don't."