Born This Way

Saturday, March 31, 2012 /by

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by Pete Bodo

MIAMI—She plays in so lackadaisical a manner as to appear apathetic. On the rare occasion when she hits an ace, it’s apt to be traveling at 81 MPH—not quite enough to shatter the sound barrier. Her signature shot is a backhand or forehand that she strikes while squatting, often in danger of falling over backward, like a little girl losing her balance while building a sand castle.

Agnieszka Radwanska is the slow-acting poison of the WTA, and she claimed one of her most surprising victims today, mastering world No. 2 Maria Sharapova in the final of the Sony Ericsson Open, 7-5, 6-4. It was her first win over Sharapova in their last seven matches, and the best title Radwanska has earned to date.

It was a convincing win built on Radwanska’s ability to mesmerize and frustrate a woman with a game more typically of our time. Some pundits will say that Radwanska is “old school,” or describe her as a throwback, but that’s not quite accurate. There have always been women players who relied on power and athleticism, and there have always been some who were more inclined—or compelled—to cultivate guile and variety.

Like Martina Hingis, the player who Radwanska admires and whose sensibility she most closely mirrors, the Pole's competitive poise is a frequently overlooked factor in her success (she’s climbed to No. 4 in the world).

Today it was just as critical part of the winning formula as her lack of unforced errors (10, to Sharapova's 45) or a service-return match-up that turned the conventional wisdom on its ear. Wasn’t this match supposed to be about how vulnerable Radwanska is to an aggressive returner?

I had the chance to sit down with Radwanska long after she finished her official presser and the rest of the champion’s media obligations. She was on her second post-match outfit, a lacey, low-cut white top with spaghetti straps, Daisy Duke shorts, and flip-flops.

“It was weird,” she said, looking back on the match. “In my semifinal with Marion (Bartoli) it was all breaks—I’m not sure she even won her serve one time. The return was the key. Today, the serve was the key. I didn’t lose my serve one time and that’s why I won the match.”

That was no mean feat against a woman with the aggressive return of a Sharapova, and the statistics are telling. Radwanska put 70 percent of her first serves into play, just one percentage point better than Sharapova. But she won 76 percent of those first-serve points, while Sharapova won just 67 percent of hers.

“In a match with so few breaks, you just have to be a few percent better,” Radwanska told me. “I just break her in the last game of each set. I closed it out well, because if would go to three sets maybe I would be in trouble because she is very aggressive—always putting pressure.”

Sharapova tried to apply that pressure throughout the match, but Radwanska resisted it admirably. The Krakow native (she still lives there, and attends classes at a local university when she’s at home) doesn’t tag scorching serves, shriek in ecstacy as she hammers a forehand, or shake a menacing fist at the tennis gods (or the player guest box) after every winner. She’s cool to the point of seeming uninterested, and betrays not a smidgen of emotion. Her step is light and she wastes no energy on preparatory rituals. “Anger,” she said. “is just wasting energy. Better to look ahead to something positive, the next point.”

201203311440528563925-p2@stats_comThe adjectives that come to mind to describe Radwanska are: Implacable; remote; unflappable; leisurely; languid; measured. She often plays from a low crouch, as if she’s dodging real bullets rather than optic yellow ones. It’s effective as a discipline that yields consistency, but it’s also an apt symbol. Hers is a game of the insurgent. It’s guerilla tennis—especially against taller, more powerful, more physical rivals.

“Every player is different,” she said, philosophically. “Everyone is doing different things. Spanish, Italian, American—everyone is. . . specific. I will never serve like a Serena, or even a Maria. I am different, and what I try to do is mix it up—everything—on the court. Also, with my game I must be consistent. And, of course, running. Lots of running.”

A number of women on the tour may play defense as well as Radwanska, but none of them combine the ability to cover the court with so many shotmaking resources to call upon. The point that gave Radwanska three break chances to with Sharapova serving to stay in the first set was a classic example.

Pulled far off court on the forehand side, Radwanska reached out and flicked up a lob to stay in the point. Sharapova missed the drive volley and never recovered from the subsequent triple set point.

“I was born with this,” Radwanska said of her exceptional reflexes and instincts. “But of course my dad (Robert) was coaching me for 18 years (he’s aided these days by Poland’s Fed Cup coach Tomasz Wiktorowski, and Borna Bikic). For sure I am a little different from other players in the Top 5. But really, every week is different and you never know what to expect. One thing in women’s tennis is if it is 5-1 or 1-5, you can still always come back. The serve isn’t the biggest weapon, like it is on the men’s tour.”

It should come as no great surprise that a player with so fascinating a game is not just a pro tennis player, but also a pro tennis fan. She grew up admiring Martina Hingis, Pete Sampras, and Steffi Graf.

Unlike some of her peers, who haughtily claim to be uninterested in what any of their rivals or precursors are doing, Radwanska is as much of a remote-jockey as, well, her own most ardent fans. And she admits to still feeling thrilled to share a locker room or restaurant with players she actually watched on television while she developed her game in Germany—the Serenas and Venuses and Kim Clijsters' of the tour. Agnieszka's father re-located to a club in Gronau when her and her sister, fellow pro Urszula, were children.

“I love watching tennis,” she admitted, smiling broadly. “Maybe there is something weird or something about me. Because even when I am on site (at an event), playing, practicing all day, like that, I will go back to my room and still turn on the television to watch the night matches. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Are you okay? What’s wrong with you?’”

Today was a good day for Radwanska, and on such days it surely must be fun to be her. On bad days it must be less so, because it must be frustrating to feel overwhelmed by the power and pace of a rival.

As Sharapova said, “Today she was very consistent, she got that extra ball back, and I made that extra mistake. She didn't give me many errors. When I did have second serve opportunities, you know, she's serving at 70 miles per hour and I'm not winning those points. There's something wrong with that.”

While there’s truth in that, it’s also a fact that Radwanska is masterful at denying an opponent what she’s looking for; in Sharapova’s case, that means withholding the degree of pace she craves in order to draw an opponent like Radwanska into a hitting contest.

Seventy mile per hour serves, sliced forehands (Radwanska hit many of them today), drop shots, and undercut backhands—Radwanska used all of them today to keep Sharapova from finding that rhythm a power player likes. And Radwanska no longer appears to be flummoxed by having to hit high balls on either side; that was the most glaring of her repairable weaknesses.

I suppose you could call Radwanska a classic passive-aggressive, tennis division. For one thing is certain, and it’s a very real if not very evident element in her growing success: As defensive as she is—she hit just one winner in the entire second set, and a grand total of six, to Sharapova’s 31—there’s not much back-up in her, not in a general nor a specific sense.

Earlier in the day, she described that signature squatting groundstroke she hits off blasts that land on or near the baseline:

“Well, it's just something that I used to do, and I don't (even) know how. Nobody teach me that, not even my dad. It's just me. I think I was too lazy to go backwards, and I was just standing and doing those squats. There you go.”

Lazy isn’t generally regarded as an excellent quality in a tennis professional, but there’s no real need to rush or run around when you know that you’re a slow-acting poison.

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