Madcap Nightcap

by: Steve Tignor | December 12, 2011

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It has been a week: Do you miss tennis yet? For old times’ sake, I flipped over to the Tennis Channel twice this weekend to see how the network’s countdown of the Top 30 matches of 2011 was going. On my first visit, I saw a little of Victoria Azarenka’s 6-1, 6-4 blowout of Maria Sharapova in Key Biscayne. I thought the network might be stretching the meaning of “best” a little thin. The next time I stopped by, I caught a few points of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s win over Andy Murray at Queens. This looked better: The sun, the clouds, the polite applause, the clubhouse in the background—I missed London in summer. Then Murray, after shanking a backhand, let out a primal howl in the direction of his box and I was happy to be able turn the channel. It was too, as they say, soon.

But the Tennis Channel's concept is a sound one. It was a fine year of tennis, and it deserves a look back before we look ahead. This is where the trusty YouTube highlight reel comes in. In these, you enter a sort of tennis utopia, a beautiful, taunting universe where every point ends with a winner and no one makes anything so gauche as an unforced error. I’ll use these clips, as I have the last two years, to count down my own Top 10 matches of 2011 over the next two weeks. Today we start at No. 10, with a recent, and wild, three-set comeback win by Agnieszka Radwanska over Vera Zvonareva at the WTA's year-end championships in Istanbul.


—The first thing I should note is how quickly we forget about even the matches we love. I wrote the Racquet Reaction to this one on October 27 and called it "amazing." Last week, when I was trying to come up with my Top 10 match list, I didn’t even recall it until I did a more thorough search outside of the Slams. I guess we can all succumb to the (bogus) “it’s only the majors that matter” mindset. If it didn’t happen at the one of the Slams (and even the Aussie Open gets fuzzy by now), it’s as if it didn’t happen at all.

—The second thing to note is that as much as I love the highlight reel, 23 minutes, 43 seconds is a bit long for a three-setter, no matter how entertaining it was. There are lots of great shots in the first two sets, especially from Zvonareva, who was on one of her nerveless rolls, but I would recommend scrolling ahead to the 10-minute mark. That’s when the third set, and the surprises, begin.

—But back to the start for now. I don’t want to get into an argument about grunting today, because it’s not first on my personal list of grouchy tennis fan grievances. (Let’s try to wait until Wimbledon 2012, when the London tabloids pull out their grunt-o-meters again.) But I will say that the silence from these two players, which lasts until Zvonareva gets increasingly desperate in the third set, is appealing.

—Also appealing are the rallies themselves. There’s nothing particularly unusual about them: both players move each other around from the baseline in the standard way. But Radwanska does it with just enough individuality—slices, drops, spinning retrievals—to keep things interesting from shot to shot. There’s also a sense of energy and excitement to the way Zvonareva plays these points. Unlike even a lot of men who rally for a living, she’s going for her shots. And her lack of an accompanying shriek when she nails a forehand somehow makes it more impressive and fun to watch. (Hmmm, maybe I do want to get into an argument about grunting).

—Coming into this match, Radwanska had beaten Zvonareva three straight times, but the Russian always acted as if it was only a matter of time before she turned the tables. You can see why in this first set. On paper, Vera shouldn’t have much trouble with Aga. If you take the brain out of the equation (I know, not such an easy thing to do, but humor me), Zvonareva is one of the WTA’s very best ball-strikers, a woman who is vulnerable mainly to the few players who can hit bigger than she does, such as Clijsters and Serena. Radwanska can't do this, so she must get under Zvonareva’s skin, and into her head, by forcing her to hit multiple winners to secure every point.

—And that, at the start of the second set, is what Radwanska does. I watched a lot of Vera in Istanbul, and even though I knew all about her ability to melt down, I was amazed to see how quickly it could happen—it doesn’t take much. In the first game of the second set here, she goes up 40-15 on her serve but can’t close it out. The match turns around completely. Radwanska, after being run off the court for half an hour, runs away with the second set.

—As I said, though, the third set is where the action is, and where this match turns into something special. As I wrote to start my Racquet Reaction at the time:

"We’ve been remarking all week about how the crowds in Istanbul have stuck around through long evenings of tennis until the bitter, post-11 P.M. end, and a lot of them were there tonight. They got their reward, after two lopsided matches, with a madcap nightcap between Radwanska and Zvonareva."

Seeing that crowd five weeks later, I’m even more impressed. Most of them probably didn’t have a rooting interest in this one, but they were fully behind Radwanska by the end, because they were caught up in an aspect of sports that transcends any individual game or nation: the comeback.

—This year Radwanska’s craft and feel around the court have been compared, by myself and a couple of others, to Roger Federer’s. As with Federer, that feel is eye-catching enough that it can distract you from other positive qualities in her game. What strikes me in this highlight reel is Radwanska’s improv skill, her ability to do whatever it takes, come up with whatever is needed on the spot, to win a point. We see her shorten her stroke to a bunt on returns. We see her get turned around, and then turn back around, to stay in an important rally with a desperation poke overhead. We see her scramble to her left and then to her right to take balls off her shoetops. We see her pass Zvonareva from well behind the baseline with a net-cord forehand. As commentator Corina Morariu noted after one of Radwanska’s mad runs, Aga had “found her zone.” It must be a tiring place to live, but it works for her.

—Still, Radwanska should have lost this one. Serving at 5-3, 40-15 in the third set, Zvonareva had an open forehand up the line. The shot had been her bread and butter for the better part of two sets. This time she . . .  hit it wide. But credit Radwanska for making her pay for that miss. Aga scraped through two more match points against her, and finally broke serve with a wickedly acute backhand pass. The shot was so good that the game’s most unassuming star did what for her is the equivalent of a Rafael Nadal flying fist-pump: She stood still for a split second and slowly made a fist. No pump, though; let's not get totally crazy.

—This was one of the wilder endings to a match I can remember from 2011. As fun as these highlights are, you don’t quite get a sense of how unlikely it seemed. Here’s how I described it at the time, beginning with Radwanska serving at 4-5, having just saved three match points:

"You had a feeling Zvonareva was in trouble at that stage, but you probably had no idea how good Radwanska was going to be. On the second point at 4-5, she continued her uncanny, stretching, reaching, scrambling, double-backing, hacking, court-spanning defense until all Zvonareva could do was try an all-or-nothing drop shot that found the net. When Radwanska held serve with another crosscourt pass that caught the tape and landed in, the crowd was on its feet. They were there again at the end of the following game, when she broke serve by tracking down a very good drop shot and dropping it herself—smack on Zvonareva’s baseline.

By then, Zvonareva, visor askew, a weird smile etched on her lips, was as good as gutted. In the last game, she sent a backhand hopelessly long and ended it with a whimper of a forehand into the net. Radwanska stood stunned as the crowd leapt one more time. Now they know, if they didn't before: This is women's tennis, anything can happen. Sometimes it pays to stick around."

—When it was all over and the night time crowd was standing to cheer her, Radwanska did what you might expect. She sat down, composed herself, and took a sip of water. She'd earned it.

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