Sam Stosur thanked nearly everyone.
Except, perhaps, the person who mattered most.
The former US Open champion had just accepted the Spirit of Tennis award at Tennis Australia’s 2019 Newcombe Medal presentation night and when she began to speak, internal conflict was raging.
By the time she stepped off stage, she’d had enough.
The person that Stosur failed to mention was her partner, Liz Astling. When the moment came, she was still too afraid.
“I accepted that award and kind of got up there and made my speech and as I was going, I was like … ‘No, I can’t do it, no, I can’t do it’,” Stosur, who was 35 at the time, recalled on the Ordineroli Speaking podcast.
“Once I stepped off stage, I was like, ‘What are you doing? You’ve just accepted this award, thanked all these people and the person who really is with you every single day, the person you have the most candid and open discussions with, who you want to spend the rest of your life with, you can’t mention them on stage?’
“I was like, ‘Nah, that’s ridiculous now … I don’t want to do that anymore’.
“We were walking back to the car, to the carpark, to come home and I said, ‘I want to do this’, and I think I hit send at 3am or something.”
Stosur was hitting send on an Instagram post. It was a lovely caption that would have been standard fare after such a night, but for one deeply personal line.
“To my Mum, Dad, Daniel and Dom and my partner Liz, you have given me the love, support and every opportunity to pursue my dream and I’ll be forever grateful.”
It was the first time that Stosur, an intensely private person, had ever publicly acknowledged her female partner or her sexuality.
“It actually felt so good just to open up that little bit more and have that truth of my relationship with her (Liz) out there and just to finally say thank you to her,” Stosur said.
“Because she’s a huge part of my life firstly, tennis secondly but again, all of that ties in together and it just got to the point where I was sick of not being able to acknowledge her, just because she’s a huge part of it first and foremost, and I wanted to be able to say thanks.”
Liz gave birth to the couple’s first child, Genevieve, last year. She has also been a strong supporter of Stosur’s tennis career, which saw her reach this year’s mixed doubles final at the Australian Open with fellow Aussie Matt Ebden.
Astling reportedly worked as a physical therapist for Australia’s Fed Cup team, meeting Stosur in 2015. They became a couple in 2016.
While friends, family and plenty in tennis circles had long known that she was gay, Stosur felt that the broader community still harboured negativity to same-sex relationships. Finally breaking free of that fear was an enormous relief yet even now, self-acceptance remains a work in progress.
“It really wasn’t news to anyone that knew me,” Stosur said.
“Even until maybe I put that out on Instagram, you still kind of go through moments where it’s a bit of a struggle. I’m working with a new psychologist now and we’ve probably talked about it even more than back then; just being comfortable and accepting who you are and all of it.
“It’s still probably been a work in progress and it’s not something that probably is ever really going to go away. It’s just part of trying to grow and develop as a person, I think.
“I think just being judged [scared me]; it’s something wrong or, ‘What if they know? They’re not going to like you’. Or, you read about people losing sponsors.
“It’s not like I ever really had a bad experience but it’s just that stigma that’s attached with it all, which I think is getting better now, that just kind of always scared me. Probably just to really open up was always kind of hard for me.
“I wish I did things a little differently but I also did them the way I did because of how I felt at the time and [felt] that that was right. You can’t force anyone to do anything, whether it’s this subject or something else, it’s gotta be the right time for the person.
“Even though I came close and it was, ‘I don’t want to deal with this anymore, I’m just going to do it’ … never did. I think it’s the right time when it happens, so I don’t have regrets but yeah, I kinda wondered, ‘Would things have been a bit different or would things have played out a little bit differently if I’d taken that leap before?’
“You don’t realise that [weight] until you kind of get it off your shoulders. It’s not that you’re necessarily lying or hiding something … it’s just that little bit of cautiousness around what you do and that becomes tiring and becomes, ‘Why did I ever need to do that or why did I feel like I needed to do that’, when it could have been a whole lot simpler.”
Self-doubt has long been considered Stosur’s achilles heel in tennis, too.
She is an enigma; on one hand, strong enough to have beaten icon Serena Williams in the 2011 US Open final yet on the other, mentally fragile in her home Grand Slam. Stosur hasn’t been past the second round at Melbourne Park since 2014 and her best results are two trips to round four, the last 11 years ago. She’s lost in the first round eight times, including the 2012 tournament, after her Flushing Meadows win made her Australia’s headline act.
Stosur admitted that criticism of her performances in Australia – “beat up and dug into the ground January after January” – had turned into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“It’s hard because I do feel like I’ve got the resilience and the perseverance and the mental toughness and fortitude to get through some huge occasions on court,” Stosur told Ordineroli Speaking.
“I’ve proven time and time again that I have and I can; but if I don’t win at the Aussie Open, all of a sudden, I don’t have any of that [according to critics] and it just doesn’t seem … it doesn’t weigh up, because I’m so good in that area in a lot of times and then all of a sudden, I have no resilience at all.
“I don’t believe that, obviously, but when that’s all that you hear over that period of time, it’s hard then for it not to kind of become the truth for that moment, I guess.
“The Aussie Open’s been a really hard time of the year on many levels over the course of my career but I think it’s almost the price I paid for being the No.1 player in Australia for so long, I guess.
“All of a sudden, we’re playing in Australia and you’re expected to do great things, win the tournament. Especially after the US Open, Aussie is the next Slam to come round the corner; well, you’ve just won one, why can’t you just win another one? It’s easy, just go do it!”
The bottom line for Stosur, tennis player and person: “I am proud of who I am.”
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