Miami: Radwanska d. Sharapova

Saturday, March 31, 2012 /by

ArIt’s a measure of how far below the proverbial radar Agnieszka Radwanska flies that she could go 37-7 since the U.S. Open, win three titles, crack the Top 5, and reach the final of one of the tour’s biggest events, the Sony Ericsson Open, and still have to tell CBS’s Mary Carillo what to call her. Today, finally, it was “Aga” of Poland, not the Anglicized “Aggie," who won an important title.

There’s no question what to call this victory: The biggest of her career. Radwanska not only won her highest-profile Premier Mandatory event yet, but she beat a nemesis of hers, Maria Sharapova, for just the second time in nine tries to do it. Otherwise, this was a vintage Aga performance, no different from a hundred others. On the one hand, she hit very few winners, big serves, or memorable shots. On the other, she made very few errors, got everything back that she could put a racquet on, and changed speeds and spins and directions intelligently. Radwanska didn’t power the ball past Sharapova often, but she did enough with it to make her move, back her up, to keep her off-balance—to bamboozle her. And she saved her best tennis for when it mattered. Radwanska didn’t have a break point until 6-5 in the first set, when she broke to win it. And didn’t have any until 5-4 in the second, when she broke again, this time for the match.

Of course, Aga couldn’t have done it without a little help from her . . . opponent, Sharapova. Maria made more than 40 errors; two-thirds of the points were decided by her mistakes. Radwanska’s first serves were mostly in the 80- to 90-m.p.h range, but Sharapova couldn’t do much with them. At 3-3 in the first, Sharapova had a break point, but she sent a backhand return off an 89-m.p.h serve well long. As in her last match, against Caroline Wozniacki, Sharapova needed to find that precarious balance between aggression and margin. This time, she never looked like she was comfortable or in a groove against Radwanska’s subtle change-ups, and her strokes broke down when she got anxious. Sharapova's fear of the overhead didn’t help, either. At 5-6 in the first, she hit a swing volley into the net to do down 0-40; on a key point in the second on Radwanska’s serve, she let another ball drop and eventually hit a forehand long.

Sharapova continues her perplexing run as a terminal bridesmaid. This is her third final-round defeat in a major event this season. Often in the past it’s been her serve that has hurt her; today the serve held up but the baseline consistency wasn’t there. On the whole, there are a lot of things that Sharapova has to keep together to beat wallboards like Radwanska and Wozniacki. Maria has to hit her shots, a lot of her shots, for a long time, to win. She still has the killer instinct and the champ’s mentality, but she’s lost the closer’s confidence.

For the winner, this title will finally raise her profile and put her in the Grand Slam conversation as we near Paris. Radwanska doesn’t have a lot to defend in the clay season, but as with Wozniacki, she may want to focus on the majors more, rather than the week-to-week grind—Aga, like Caro, plays a lot, and she has yet to reach a Slam semi.

But that’s for the future. For today, Radwanska’s win seals the unlikely rise of a finesse player in the Age of Power. She shows that the old virtues still apply, including, above everything else, playing within yourself. Aga knows who she is and what she can do. Mary Carillo and the rest of us are still finding out.

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