Ash Barty is the talk of the town in Australian Tennis. Last year she won her maiden Grand Slam and rose to be ranked number one in the world. Spare a thought for compatriot Samatha Stosur who was the number one Australian women’s player for almost nine years between 2008-2017.
Stosur competed in the Australian Open qualifiers in the year 2000 at just 15 years of age. Twenty years later she remains in the top 100 as a 35 year old.
There’s been plenty of highlights in Stosur’s career; a singles Grand Slam victory at the 2011 US Open, a career high singles ranking of number four, 3 doubles Grand Slam titles, 3 mixed doubles Grand Slam titles, 4 Olympic Games with a 5th likely to come later this year.
The question will be asked as Stosur approaches retirement: Did she achieve all she could? Because whilst there were many highlights equally there were lowlights: battles with injury, struggles with form and underwhelming performances on home soil. How should she reflect on her career?
Stosur is not unique among sporting professionals to have a career that is far from average and yet imperfect.
The twelfth man
Andy Bichel was a medium-fast bowler from Queensland who played 19 tests for Australia. He never cemented his place in the Australian team and was named twelfth man for Australia a further 19 times; an unwanted cricketing record.
In 2007 Matthew Egan was in his third season playing in the backline for the Geelong Football Club when he was awarded a place in that seasons All-Australian side. Geelong were a dominant team that season winning the Grand Final by 119 points.
Egan was unfortunately unable to play in the grand final; a foot injury sustained late in the year ended his season. Prior to his injury Egan had played 59 games but it was an injury from which he never recovered; he never played football again.
These athletes and hundreds like them had exceptional careers but perhaps weren’t everything they hoped for. Here’s my tips for athletes reflecting upon an imperfect career.
- Focus on your own goals
With over two thousand players on the women’s tennis circuit they can’t all achieve the feats of Serena Williams. The definition of a successful career must be broader than becoming the greatest player of all time. Athletes should focus on the goals they set for themselves; whether it be to make the top 100, to win a match at a Grand Slam event, to go to the Olympics or win a career title. Sam Stosur may not have achieved every goal on her list but I’m sure she achieved plenty.
- Ignore the media
The media has no interest in an athlete’s personal goals. Journalists simply want to clicks on their websites and eyeballs reading their articles. Journalists will sensationalise and stereotype in order to gain readership. Many journalists hammered Stosur over her poor performances in Australia describing her as a choker and mentally weak. In the 2011 US open final Stosur defeated Serena Williams the greatest player of the modern era, in front of a crowd of more than 20,000 displaying great mental strength.
- Overcome adversity
Sport doesn’t always pan out how we might like. Sometimes the umpires get it wrong, the selectors overlook an athlete for the national squad and injuries can be cruel. Athletes can’t choose their circumstances but they can choose how they respond. In 2007 Stosur’s ranking slid dramatically as she took time out of tennis to be treated for Lyme disease. She returned from this set back to become a top 10 player and a Grand Slam champion.
Andy Bichel may have struggled to hold a place in the Australian test side but found a place in the One Day team playing 67 international matches including playing in Australia’s 2003 World Cup winning side. Even Matthew Egan who was forced into early retirement rebounded from adversity to become an assistant coach at AFL level.
- Use your platform with purpose
Many professional athletes achieve a measure of fame, even moderately successful athletes have a greater reach and influence than the average person. Athletes have a unique opportunity to consider how they will use their voice and their influence.
- Enjoy the journey
You can’t sustain a twenty-year sporting career like Stosur has without enjoying the game. Athletes should enjoy playing their sport whether it’s at local, state or international level. Athletes ought not spend their careers living only for the occasional big moments, the Grand Slams and the Olympics. Athletes should treasure the opportunity they have to play sport professionally, to travel the globe and to be a role model.
Athletes should assess their careers not solely by what they achieved but also by how they enjoyed the journey along the way.
Sport imitates life. Our lives too are often imperfect but they are still worth living and definitely worth celebrating.
Travis Barnes lives in central Victoria with his wife and two daughters. He is a contributor for Christian Today and a sportswriter.