They say you’re only as good as your second serve, and in most cases that’s true. But we may have found an exception in Agnieszka Radwanska. For much of her quarterfinal match today with Li Na, Radwanska’s winning percentage on second-serve points hovered in the mid-20s. And throughout the match, Li had opportunities to knock off sitter backhand returns. But Radwanska, as she does so often, found a way around this fundamental disadvantage and came back to win 3-6, 6-2, 6-3.
Radwanska did it by varying her shots and getting better depth on them, but in truth this match was won and lost on Li’s racquet. A specific racquet, that is: After putting a backhand into the net to be broken for 1-2 in the first set, Li sent her frame off to be restrung and picked up a new one. Something clicked with it, because she won the next five points, and seven of the next nine games to go up a set and a break. When Li wasn’t hitting outright winners, many of them down the line, she was moving Radwanska with controlled aggressiveness. She was dictating, but not overhitting.
You could literally hear the change come at 2-1 in the second set. Up early in her service game, with Radwanska reeling, Li suddenly hit her first badly shanked forehand since the opening moments of the match. The clang, and Li's unhappy reaction to it, sounded ominous, and for good reason. Just at the moment when she appeared ready to consolidate the break and begin closing it out, nerves had crept into Li’s stroke. She didn’t hit the ball the same way after that.
Instead it was Radwanska who upped her pace and began moving Li, in the subtle way that she moves opponents. Aga went behind her. She found angles from the middle of the court that didn’t seem to be there. She landed her ground strokes inches from the baseline. She stretched Li without hitting too close to the sidelines. She mixed in the drop shot—like Federer, Radwanska has mastered the half-drop, half-backhand that moves her opponent up and out of position. Aga even got a little extra kick on her second serve, just enough to keep Li from belting it cleanly.
So maybe you really are only as good as your second serve. And your drop. And your wrong-foot forehand. And your hands. And your feet. And your brain.