It was hard to know exactly what would happen when Agnieszka Radwanska and Sara Errani took the court in Istanbul today. Both are retrievers and roadrunners by nature; which one would take more risks and leave her comfort zone on the baseline? It turned out that both of them were willing to try, and their efforts created the longest three-set match in the history of the WTA Championships, a three-hour, 29 minute epic that was as exhausting as it was entertaining. What ended up happening between them? Pretty much everything.
In no particular order, there were:
Drop shots: Like two scrappy welterweights, neither player had a sure-fire knockout punch, so each went to the drop early and often. It worked for both of them in roughly equal measure, but each also took their turns going to the well a few times too often. From the start, Errani anticipated Radwanska’s drop shots and tracked them down, while Aga, as she often does, gave us a new wrinkle on the play. More than once, she faked a drop shot, swung through with a full slice, and then went to a real drop on the next ball.
Good hands: Radwanska is famous for these, but if we learned anything in this match, it’s that Errani, one of the world’s best doubles players, is no slouch in the touch department, either. She used the drop shot well, and was even more effective with her drop volley. It’s a model stroke: She keeps it exceedingly simple, doesn’t try to cut it too fine, and uses it when she’s already in a winning position. These two counterpunchers had each other running up to the net and back again all day.
Tactics: It was punch and counterpunch at a strategic level as well. In the first set, Errani did a good job of working the point to get a mid-court forehand that she could rip. Radwanska fought that by going after the Italian's backhand relentlessly and finishing points at the net whenever she could. Bravery and tentativeness came and went on both sides of the net.
Second serves: Just when one of them seemed poised to use their speed and shotmaking to go on a run, this shot brought them back to earth. Neither could afford to miss it and expect to hold. Radwanska’s second balls were ducks, but if anything, Errani’s, which often came in around the 60-m.p.h. mark, quacked louder. Aga won 36 percent of her second serve points, Sara 23. There were 18 breaks of serve between them.
Bad challenges: Perhaps worse than their second serves was their use of Hawk-Eye. Each ran out of challenges in the second set, and Errani had to be saved from doing the same in the third by friendly chair umpire Kader Nouni, who discouraged her from making another.
Momentum swings: There was a semifinal berth on the line, and each did their best to cover up their weaknesses and fight back after being broken. Radwanska appeared to be in trouble after losing the first set in a tiebreaker and also losing a long game to go down 4-5 in the second set. But she quickly shook off her disappointment and won the next three games.
In the third set, Radwanska built a two-break lead three different times, only to see Errani hang in and force her to serve it out at 5-4. Aga went down 15-30, and it appeared that the winds of courage were at Errani’s back. But there was one last twist of momentum in store for us at the three-and-a-half hour mark. Radwanska cracked a forehand winner—a shot she had often missed in this match—to make it 30-30, and then pushed forward for a volley winner to reach match point. Finally, stunningly, Errani hit her next return of serve long, and it was over, 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-4. A quick point and a hold: The match that had a lot of everything saved its biggest surprise for the very end.