The Good Hands Club
Recently I wrote an article about what I’ve learned, and not been able to learn, from watching some of the top male players over the years. That education has mostly come through internalizing their strokes and movements and patterns of play, rather than consciously copying them. For some reason, telling myself, in the middle of a point, “Now extend through your backhand and crush it down the line like Djokovic!” rarely produces the desired result.
The case might be different with Agniezska Radwanska. Watching her win her second Premier 5 level event this weekend in Tokyo, I wondered if I had been imitating the right people. Radwanska’s game has a double value. As with the top men, it’s smooth and natural enough that you don’t need to do anything more than see her reach up and step forward for her service toss, or slide under a backhand drop shot at the very last second, to get an idea of what those shots are supposed to look like in an ideal tennis world. But unlike the top men, Radwanska isn’t big or athletic or powerful enough to take that smooth game and simply impose her will with it. Like many normal humans, she has to find ways not just to win, but to keep herself in points long enough to give herself a chance.
As she often does, Radwanska, the normal human who happens to be a professional tennis player, struggled her way to victory in Tokyo. Seeded ninth, she didn’t get the customary top-player’s first-round bye; she dropped first sets to both Angelique Kerber and Jelena Jankovic before coming back to win; and she turned the tables on Victoria Azarenka in the semis after being hit off the court in the second set. In the final against Vera Zvonareva, Radwanska started sluggishly as well, losing the first two games and facing a break point in the third. Even that point looked like trouble. Zvonareva hit a strong return up the middle; Radwanska, either out of frustration or a conscious change of tactics, smacked back a much bigger forehand than normal and eventually won the point. It was like a sucker punch: Zvonareva never recovered. Radwanska went on to beat the higher-ranked Russian for the third straight time this year, 6-3, 6-2.
Afterward, Vera said, “I don’t know what happened to me.” She missed, is what happened. But I think we can say that if one player beats another three straight times, that winning player is doing something right. Radwanska did everything right, and put on a clinic for underpowered players everywhere. Most of the lessons she taught would fall under the old-fashioned axiom, “Play within yourself.” This means, at the most fundamental level, getting the ball back and moving it around, which is usually enough to win you 75 percent of your matches. But Radwanska offers subtleties worth watching and trying out yourself. She gets the ball back, yes, but she rarely just gets it back.
For example, it’s often noted that Radwanska is particularly deft at changing the direction of the ball. It’s the way she does it, though, that sticks out and seems useful. Rather than going for power, she takes the ball a little earlier than normal with her forehand, shortens her backswing, and guides the ball up the line. She trusts in placement instead of pace; Radwanska knows she can’t win points with a single shot, so she doesn’t try to, and that helps her in the long run.
We also hear that she has good hands, and she does. That trait can be a curse in disguise, however, leading some players to play with too much casual risk. The opposite is true for Radwanska. In the final, she ran forward to track down a drop shot. She could have gone for something big, something fancy, something with topspin. Instead, Radwanska used a very short backswing and measured exactly where and how hard she needed to send the ball down the line to keep it out of Zvonareva’s reach. Compared to most pros, she didn’t hit the ball close to the line, but Vera was nowhere near it. Because Radwanska, employing those deft hands, had gotten her racquet out so early, and had used almost no backswing, it was a very hard shot for her opponent to read.
Consistency, placement over power, compact, very-little-can-go-wrong swings, plenty of margin: Radwanska reminds us that that these traditional virtues can still win at any level. Even the way she gets angry seems old-fashioned in the age of the shriek and the fist-pump. If she misses an easy shot, Radwanska will wrinkle her face, put her hands on her hips, and, if things are really bad, stamp her foot—normal stuff, nothing overdone, nothing for show. If anything, her problem in the past has been a lack of ego and willfulness. I remember seeing her serenely eating lunch, laughing with friends, a few minutes after getting blown out in the Indian Wells quarterfinals a couple of years ago; you might have thought she just came off the practice court. So now, at a time when one of those friends, Caroline Wozniacki, is struggling with how much distance to put between herself and her coach/father, it’s nice to see Radwanska clearly thriving since making her own break from her coach/dad earlier this season. With this win, she has a shot of reaching the tour finals in Istanbul at the end of the month.
Radwanska wins with a game that on the surface can look ordinary. But that doesn’t mean she can’t rise to the extraordinary as well. In one rally against Zvonareva, she was scrambling hard toward her backhand side. She caught up to the ball at the sideline and could conceivably have gone for an all-out winner down the line; many pros would have taken the risk. Not this pro. Radwanska went the textbook route and sent up a towering defensive lob. When it finally came down, it landed approximately one inch in front of the baseline, right at the hash mark in the middle of the court. Good luck imitating that.
Andy Murray’s season has been a mix of the very steady and the incredibly up and down. He reached all four Slam semifinals for the first time, but in between he took ugly first-round losses in Indian Wells, Key Biscayne, and Montreal. This time Murray has bounced back much more quickly from his latest whipping at a major. He may be the most motivated of the Top 4 guys right now. He wants to pass Roger Federer for the year-end No. 3 ranking, and he wants, finally, to show his best stuff in front of the home folks in London at the World Tour Finals—it would be the biggest title of his career, and, after all of the late-round disappointment at the majors in 2011, a real step forward.
Murray came to Bangkok with a calmer sense of determination than we normally see from him. It was the determination of a favorite, of a big name who knows the tournament is his to win (as opposed to his to lose). Murray played with an air of authority, something he has generally lacked. Other than a second set hiccup against Gilles Simon, he was in command the whole way. The best sign may have been his attitude. Murray left New York admitting that he needed to be more positive. In the final in Bangkok against Donald Young, Murray showed that positivity even when he was well ahead. I kept hearing little grunts from his part of the court as he won a point; I assumed, on first listen, that they were incidental, the product of a shot he’d hit. But subsequent replays proved that, no, Murray was actually, deliberately urging himself on and pumping his fist. It didn’t appear natural, exactly—when you look in the dictionary for “upbeat,” you will never see a shot of Murray’s face—but it did look like he meant it. A positive Andy Murray? He could have a good fall.
At the U.S. Open, we all wondered and worried whether Donald Young was finally, officially for real this time. I said that the answer would come when he started winning main draw matches at less-glamorous 250-level events across the ocean this fall. I admit that I wasn't sure he would ever be consistent enough for that. This week he proved me wrong by going all the way to the final in Bangkok and winning close matches over two seeds, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Gael Monfils, along the way. That’s real.
What was also real, unfortunately, was his dispiriting loss in the final, to Murray. Granted, Young had to be tired after his epic win over Monfils the previous day. But for now, bad still follows good when it comes to DY—even his breakthroughs this year, in Indian Wells, at the Open, and here in Bangkok, have ended in a flurry of bad vibes and bad errors that have made us wonder all over again about his future. The depth of his badness threatens to wipe out all of the good that came before.
This time, however, there are three things you can’t take away from Young. He reached his first ATP final. He reached the Top 60, which will make it easier for him to get into main draws in the near future, thus giving him more chances to proved his realness. Most important was the way he played against Monfils. Young, for the first time that I’ve seen, played the game that way it's played at the highest levels now, by controlling rallies with a forehand that bordered on the go-for-broke, but which didn’t break when it mattered most.
The future still remains uncertain for Young, and his swings in quality and confidence may always be wild. But we know one thing: Success for him is going to be earned one small step at a time. Last week he took another.