I caught my first glimpse of Radwanska on a sunny Saturday in September, and my impressions were not favorable: an insufferable runt, not unlike her pet rats Flippy and Floppy, had inexplicably expelled my favorite player from the Slam where she had been the defending champion. Since then, however, I’ve gradually warmed to the Pole and grown to appreciate her and her game for what they are: a dedicated, hardworking player who maximizes her potential more than most of her peers, and a refreshing counterpoint to the power baseliners rife in the WTA. This first player profile responds to a specific request from one of my readers. It will recap five highlights and five lowlights of Radwanska’s career (with their implications), discuss three strengths and three weaknesses in her game, and conclude with a brief depiction of what her future might hold.
5) 2006 Luxembourg: Although Agnieszka had demonstrated early promise by winning the junior titles at Wimbledon and the French Open, her WTA breakthrough came at this indoor hard event. She defeated then-#1 Venus Williams in the second round before later upsetting Elena Dementieva. Her success against these more powerful players on a relatively fast surface revealed her already well-honed counterpunching skills.
4) 2007 US Open: Defeating defending champion Sharapova in a three-set rollercoaster, Radwanska proved that she could bring her best tennis to the biggest stages. Against the Russian megastar, she showcased her mental tenacity when she weathered the predictable Sharapova mid-match blitz and escaped an early deficit in the final set. Despite Maria’s serious shoulder injury, which dramatically hampered her serve, Radwanska deserved applause for retaining her composure as she approached the finish line and comfortably closing out the match. (One caveat: her habit of dancing in and out while Sharapova prepared to serve was unworthy of a top player, and such antics have vanished as she has matured.)
3) 2010 Indian Wells: We haven’t yet gained the distance to fully appreciate this highlight, but it’s worth noting that Radwanska reached the final four at this year’s BNP Paribas Open without dropping a set. Her victims included familiar names such as Bartoli and Dementieva, in addition to Henin’s conqueror, Dulko. Although the relatively slow hard courts at Indian Wells typically suit a counterpuncher’s game, the ease of her wins over imposing opposition reminded audiences that she can outplay anyone on any given day.
2) 2009 Beijing: Agnieszka charged to the final of this Premier Mandatory event, one of the top four non-Slam tournaments on the calendar. As in the desert, she defeated Bartoli and Dementieva before falling to Kuznetsova in the championship match. After a lackluster year in which she had lost 9 consecutive quarterfinals, her semifinal in Tokyo (when she extended Sharapova to three sets) and her breakthrough in Beijing trumpeted her return to form.
1) 2008 Eastbourne: Confronting the imposing serve of Nadia Petrova, Radwanska rallied from a one-set deficit before saving multiple match points in an epic second-set tiebreak. Then, she outlasted the Russian in the third set while producing some inspired shot-making of her own. This grass Wimbledon warm-up is the most significant title of Agnieszka’s career to date; it set the stage for consecutive Wimbledon quarterfinal runs in 2008 and 2009, which perhaps together deserve a place on this list. One of her most impressive attributes is her ability to counterbalance the powerful serves that normally dominate on grass with her deft touch and nimble footwork (in fact, she has won a title on every surface). Casting a backward glance, I’m also impressed that she could lift the opulent trophy:
5) 2007 US Open: This event curiously falls into both categories! After upsetting second-seeded Sharapova (see above), Radwanska failed to capitalize on her momentum and on a very soft draw, falling to Shahar Peer in a winnable match one round later. Her squandered opportunity allowed the now-vanished Anna Chakvetadze to reach the semifinals, where she played Kuznetsova in a woeful avalanche of errors. Surely Agnieszka could have offered a higher level of entertainment had she reached the final four.
4) 2009 Dubai: Although troubled by illness, Agnieszka had little excuse for falling to her still-raw younger sister, Urszula. The loss extended her slump from a poor Australian Open result and suggested that, just as she can defeat anyone, she can also lose to anyone on any given day. It’s never easy playing a sibling (witness Venus-Serena), but she needs to handle this situation more confidently as she matures.
3) 2008 Olympics: As the best tennis player in Poland’s history, Radwanska carried the expectations of a nation on her shoulders when she traveled to Beijing. The pressure seemed to weigh heavily on her during a loss to the equally crafty Schiavone. As she would demonstrate a year later, the medium-speed hard court in the Olympic Stadium (revived as the venue for the Beijing ATP/WTA event) should have proved an excellent match for her counterpunching style. Here’s hoping that she gets a second and possibly third chance to represent her nation in 2012 and 2016.
2) 2009 US Open: Recovering from a hand injury, an oddly diffident Radwanska lost her opening match to the talented but certainly less formidable Maria Kirilenko. Although she climbed out of a one-set hole to force a deciding set, she proved unable to seize the momentum and seemed to tentatively wait for “the other Maria” to choke. The Russian didn’t oblige, raising concerns about Radwanska’s game that were only silenced with her emphatic Asian run last fall.
1) 2009 Wimbledon: A quarterfinal loss to Venus wasn’t surprising, considering the American’s stellar record in SW17, nor was the lopsided scoreline especially shocking. But her comment after the match that it was “impossible” for her to beat the Williams sister (she was soundly thrashed by Serena in the previous year’s quarterfinal) mirrored her defeatist body language on court. Even when she broke Venus and briefly threatened in the second set, she never looked convinced in her ability to win. One of a counterpuncher’s greatest weapons is their firm self-belief that they can wear down a stronger opponent through sheer resilience and strength of character; if they lose that quality, they’re roadkill waiting to happen.
1) Tennis IQ: Gifted with remarkable instincts, Radwanska anticipates her opponent’s tactics extremely well during points. Like Murray, she has a knack for forcing her opponents to play in the style least comfortable for them, whether forcing short players to hit moonballs or tall players to handle low slices. A match against the Pole provides many players with a checklist of features that they should address during their upcoming practice sessions. While not typically a hallmark of the game’s greatest stars, the tactic of playing to the opponent’s flaws works especially well in the current WTA, where coaches train players to maximize their strengths rather than minimizing their weaknesses or developing a reliable Plan B. (In most cases, this strategy proves sound; Radwanska is the exception that proves the rule.)
2) Versatility: The imaginative Pole can hit every shot in the tennis lexicon and improvise at will throughout points. When the momentum of a rally appears to be heading inexorably away from her, she has numerous tactics for bringing it back to a neutral position. Her stylistic flexibility contrasts with her highly “programmatic” peers, whose games are constructed in order to allow them to hit their favorite shot as often as possible. Radwanska doesn’t have a favorite shot or shots, but neither does she have a single empty shelf in her arsenal. If Plan A doesn’t produce the desired results, she can go to Plan B, then Plan C, Plan D, etc…
3) Consistency: Very few of her rivals can keep the ball in the court for rally after rally in game after game. Refusing to donate easy points, the Pole makes her opponents work extremely hard both physically and mentally. The effort of gradually punching holes in her defenses requires intense concentration, especially since she has a superb talent for absorbing pace. Whereas more temperamental WTA stars occasionally rush into reckless unforced errors as they near victory, Radwanska tightly controls her nerves and refuses to let her opponent of the hook.
1) Serve: Probably the worst delivery in the top 20, Radwanska’s first serve reaches a maximum velocity in the upper 90s and more often spins in at around 85-90 mph. This benign speed allows aggressive returners to seize control of points immediately, often hitting outright winners. Her struggle to hold serve places additional pressure on her return games, since Agnieszka knows that she can’t rely on her ability to serve out a set or match. Recently, she has improved the variety on her serve placement rather than hitting a safe T-serve over the low part of the net whenever she desperately needs a point. (Hampered with similar stature, Henin gets away with this same tactic more often than she ought.) Still, she’ll never be able to gain quick, cheap points from her serve as will most top-10 or even top-20 players.
2) Transition from defense to offense: Radwanska possesses an impressive ability to redirect the ball, but she doesn’t unleash it as frequently as she could. In a crosscourt, forehand-to-forehand rally against Sharapova during their Tokyo semifinal last fall, she suddenly changed direction with a sparkling down-the-line forehand winner. Sharapova was stunned, and so was I. But when the same rally pattern developed at a critical stage in the third set, Radwanska had the opportunity again: a deep but not overwhelming ball on her forehand, an open line, and time (perhaps the most valuable of tennis commodities). On this occasion, she played a safe shot towards the middle of the court and eventually lost the point. Her chances against powerful but not overly mobile opponents would rise if she developed sufficient confidence in her ball-redirecting skills to display them when it really matters.
3) Playing to the level of the opponent: Although Radwanska often rises to the occasion when she faces one of the WTA”s marquee stars, her level occasionally drops when she plays an unheralded player. Her US Open loss to Kirilenko exemplified this flaw, as did a match that I watched her play against Hantuchova last summer. Seemingly in control after a comfortable first set, she allowed the talented but less formidable Slovakian to stay around late in the second set and drag her into a tiebreak. After dropping a tense tiebreak, fatigue understandably overtook her during the final set, which she lost 6-1. She’ll never overpower opponents like a Williams, Sharapova, or Henin, but relentless consistency can be as suffocating as an explosive serve and should allow her to record a substantial number of easy wins. Considering the amount of effort that she expends on almost every point, she would be more likely to progress deep into large draws if she could conserve energy in early rounds by efficiently dispatching sub-par opposition.
What does her future hold? Rankings-wise, the outlook is very bright. It seems clear that she’ll stay embedded in the lower top 10 for a long time to come, perhaps with a few trips into the top 15 or so. Moreover, most of the players ranked higher than her are also older than her, so her current ranking of #8 could even improve a little once they retire. Among her own generation, very few players have recorded consistent success against her. Titles-wise, however, I’m not optimistic about her chances of claiming a Slam. In a 7-match tournament, she likely would need to defeat at least three or four players who are significantly stronger than she is. Despite her ability to score major upsets, she hasn’t yet strung them together at the same tournament. I imagine that she’ll collect plenty of WTA-level hardware throughout her career while often reaching the second week at Slams, but the big prize will remain just slightly beyond her grasp.
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