PERHAPS by belatedly revealing her secret November ankle surgery on the eve of the Brisbane International, Sam Stosur was buying a little public understanding should the early stages of her Australian campaign again go awry. If so, it might prove to be a savvy tactic, after an undercooked Stosur was eliminated by world No.41 Sofia Arvidsson in the first round.
From the wreckage of the Queenslander's last Australian summer, she salvaged a single win in three tournaments: in straight sets against Anastasia Yakimova from Belarus in her opening match in Brisbane. On Monday night, she failed to reach the second round of her home-state event for the first time in five attempts, seven double-faults amid 48 unforced errors contributing to her 7-6 (7-4), 7-5 downfall. Another telling final statistic was that Arvidsson out-aced her more celebrated serving opponent 5-1.
In heavy conditions on the slowish Plexicushion of Pat Rafter Arena, the world No.9 and seventh seed in a quality women's field competed with tape strapped around her left ankle, five weeks after surgery to remove a bone spur that required painkilling medication for the last two months of the season, and just a fortnight after she resumed hitting following that untimely but necessary lay-off.
Thus, it is a different Australian circuit preparation than she has had before, but that might not be such a bad thing if it succeeds in tempering expectations a little, for the 28-year-old is yet to reach the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park and admitted that last season she failed miserably to deal with the baggage that comes with a grand slam singles win.
That 2011 US Open title was, in fact, her most recent of any kind, with 2012 delivering her third consecutive top 10 season, but no titles from her two finals, and a pair of first round losses at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Still, she would obviously have been hoping for a sharper display against Arvidsson, the world No.41 who does not have the weapons or athleticism of Stosur, but a solid game and sound temperament, as well as a game improved by Melbourne-based coach Lars Wahlgren.
Having saved a break point in the opening game, Stosur faltered at 3-3 with a loose effort on serve that ended with a double-fault and backhand error. She was forced to save three set points at 4-5, eventually using her backhand slice to good effect to level at 5-5. But two more breaks were to follow, as Arvidsson twice failed to serve out the set.
More errors were to follow in the tie-breaker from Stosur, who never really found her range after such a limited preparation, and at 1-6 saw off another three set points, before a good Arvidsson serve wide to the forehand clinched the set in 55 minutes.
Stosur started more brightly in the second, before handing back her opening break to love, and then living dangerously as she stared down another break point at 2-3. But her undoing came as she served to stay in the match, with two forehand blunders and one off the backhand side to trail 0-40. One match point was saved with an overhead, but the next sailed over the baseline.
Her coach, David Taylor, had said pre-match that Stosur was underdone, but the focus was, and remains, the Australian Open. Her movement, at least, appeared fine, and her comeback is under way, if not as successfully as she would have liked.
For Stosur thrives on a lot of tennis, and will now have a little less. ''She's had a few things working against her here,'' said Rafter, another who had difficulty dealing with the demands of playing at home at the start of the season after time away from the match court. ''Hopefully she can get enough tennis in before the Aussie Open, because we'd love to see her do well there.''
Meanwhile, pain-free for the first time in years and still with the kind of Jack Russell endeavour that spurs him to chase balls into the car park, Lleyton Hewitt begins another home summer with ambitions to rock the boat of some big names at the Australian Open.
But that plan could come unstuck on just the first day of 2013, when the Australian veteran makes his Brisbane International debut against Radek Stepanek, the awkward Czech who seems to grow another leg on Pat Rafter Arena.
''He's probably the best shape he's been in a long time, in terms of being injury free, which has enabled him to have a good month of solid practice,'' said Hewitt's coach Tony Roche.
''He's been hitting the ball well, and is looking forward to the Australian summer. If he gets the right draw and can play his way into the tournament, he can do some damage.''
Hewitt's best guess since he felt this good was: ''Don't know. Few years … Right at the moment I haven't thought too much past Melbourne and doing everything right for there.''