Aga Goes Gaga

Thursday, July 05, 2012 /by

ARMost tennis players today bounce around a lot. Some do little hop steps before each serve and return. Some turn their backs away from the court and jitter side to side. Others get in a vicious practice cut or two while they wait. 

Agnieszka Radwanska doesn’t do any of those things, or at least she doesn’t do them often. Instead, once a point is over, Radwanska walks—flat-flooted and a little slump-shouldered—to the other side of the court. There she casually sets her feet in her return position, bends down a little, and watches her opponent get ready to serve. That’s about it. Today, at the end of her semifinal with Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon, at the end of the biggest match of her career, Aga waited at the baseline looking about as wound up as someone waiting to cross a street.

That, of course, is one of the Radwanska secrets, one of the many that help this unprepossessing young woman outfox her more powerful opponents. When things get tighter, she looks, if anything, more distanced from it all; at times, she doesn’t seem to be concentrating all that hard. But when she begins to frown and walk listlessly, that’s when you better watch out. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set, a few points from making, as she said later, “a dream come true,” Radwanska watched as Kerber floated an easy backhand long. This was the type of free point in a crucial situation that would have had most of her peers straining every muscle to the breaking point in celebration. Radwanska, as the ball sailed past her, slumped her shoulders a little more and made her most characteristic facial gesture: She scrunched up her nose.

So it was almost surprising to hear Radwanska come off the court and say that the last two weeks had been the best of her life, that she was so nervous to start that her “racquet was shaking a little,” and that making a Wimbledon final had been a dream of hers for the “almost 18 years” that she had been playing tennis. 

She made it there by doing what she’s been doing for most of those 18 years—a lot with seemingly very little. In one sense, Radwanska was lucky that she faced Kerber, a friend and fellow newbie to the Wimbledon semis. But Aga’s performance was still representative of what has, against most people’s odds, put her within striking distance of the No. 1 ranking. Few players pull off as many pleasing, improvised, quietly unique plays in a routine two-setter as she does. Here’s a partial rundown of today’s: 

—In the second set, Radwanska ran forward and, without stopping to set up or taking much of a backswing, poked an inside-out forehand approach that eventually won her the point. There was really nothing to the stroke except the contact.

—A little earlier, Radwanska was at one corner of the baseline, watching Kerber run forward for what appeared to be a sure forehand winner. Before Kerber began to swing, though, Radwanska was already moving crosscourt. She caught up to the ball and bunted a backhand—again, the stroke was nothing but contact—into the open court for a winner. 

—Up a break in the second at 3-2, Radwanska moved into position for a swing forehand volley at the service line. She was well over on her forehand side, and the obvious direction was to send the ball crosscourt. But Aga saw a different angle down the line, and managed to thread the ball along it and past a surprised Kerber.

As Radwanska summed it up afterward, in her always-concise way: “I think I did a great job today.”

As for Kerber, she said that Radwanska “moved very well and made not so many mistakes,” and that she couldn't make much headway with her aggressive game plan against her. That was true; Radwanska hit 20 winners against six errors, and connected on 78 percent of her first serves. She's not known for getting free points with her serve, but that shot got her out of a few jams today.

It was a tame ending for Kerber after her demolition of Kim Clijsters in the fourth round, and her wildly emotional win over her fellow German Sabine Lisicki in the quarters. But she can’t be too disappointed. In the last year, this once obscure player has made nothing but headway and established herself as a threat to anyone. Two things stick out to me about Kerber's game: The extreme angles she can create with her two-handed backhand, and the unvarnished, straight-armed way she hits her forehand—hits it for winners, that is.

When it was over, after Radwanska’s final well-crafted sequence of shots had won her the match, the first Polish women’s finalist in Wimbledon history jumped in the air. Not too high in the air, but she got off the ground. Then she jumped again. Then she walked to the net. It could be that she didn’t want to celebrate too much because she could see what was coming. And I wouldn't blame her. At that moment, Radwanska knew she was going to get either Serena Williams or Victoria Azarenka in the final, each of whom would likely keep her from weaving her deceptive web out there, and send her home with the runner-up trophy. It turns out that her opponent will be Serena. An in-form Serena. A 24-ace-hitting Serena. A hungry Serena.

Uh . . . better not to think about that right now. Because however it ends, the one thing that had been missing in Radwanska’s rise was a deep Grand Slam run—this was her first semi at any major, and now it’s her first final. It’s nice to see this thoughtful throwback find a way to succeed, and find new ways of keeping her longtime fans—I’ve been on the bandwagon for years—surprised and entertained. And it was even nicer to see jump—OK, bounce—for joy a second time when it was over. She must have been saving that one for when her dream came true.

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