There are all kinds of lessons to take from a clash between an aggressive player and a defensive one, but the biggest takeaway from today’s battle between lame-duck world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka and No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska has true big-picture meaning.
The biggest change in the past few years in women’s tennis is that now strength really matters. The days when a Chris Evert, an Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, or even a Martina Hingis can flourish on the tour appear to be over. It was a message easily abstracted from this Doha semifinal, which Azarenka won, 6-3, 6-3.
The closest Radwanska came to threatening her former friend and now (judging from the relish with which Azarenka beats up on her) enemy was a push that started in the second set at 3-6, 0-2, after Radwanska won a morale-boosting rally of 26 shots with a beautiful cross-court backhand passing shot. But it was too little, too late, and backed by too little punch to truly threaten Vika, or provide Aga with anything more than a bit of balm for wounded pride.
Azarenka was 10-3, with seven straight wins, against Radwanska before this clash, and hadn’t lost to her since the fall of 2011. It seems to be a case of Azarenka, who’s three inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than the slender Radwanska, simply learning how to trust her aggressive instincts and employ her superior strength to send the message: The big difference between us is that I’m just bigger and stronger.
This may seem obvious, but it should not be underestimated. I think one of the reasons so may fans (and pundits) love Radwanska is because she looks so much like a regular girl trying to hold her own against women who can only be called athletic specimens. It’s obvious in the way she almost falls over trying to handle a heavy ball with that forehand, or in the ungainly squat shot she most hit so often—not least because a quality opponent can drive Aga’s powder-puff serve back at her toes with ferocious pace.
That’s exactly what Azarenka began to do after a shaky start. At the outset, Azarenka was spraying the ball all over the place. She broke in the first game, but was broken right back. Radwanska managed a hold, and at 2-all it looked like it might be interesting (for a change). But the wheels quickly began to fall off for Radwanska.
It began, fittingly enough, when Radwanska delivered a second serve at 15-30 that Azarenka drove down the line with a backhand return that her opponent could follow only with her eyes. Azarenka converted her second break point with a cross-court forehand winner to break for 3-2. It was a lead she would never relinquish.
Radwanska did manage a hold at 2-4, but by then the pattern was clear: Azarenka was using both placement and pace to push Radwanska back off the baseline. The Pole hit from behind the baseline 90 percent of the time, while Azarenka dictated from inside the baseline at least 50 percent of the time.
Among the ATP players, one of the things that makes Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic so lethal is how dangerous they can be when playing defense. This just isn’t true of Radwanska, except in the sense that she can get a lot of balls back, or take advantage of you if you attack prematurely or give her too much court to work with. What she can’t do is turn the tables on you, and reverse control of the rally.
Radwanska took a composure break at the end of the first set, and I may not be the only one who thought perhaps she went and had a good, quick cry. It would have been justified, because there just isn’t very much she can do at this stage to get Azarenka off her back.
However, we did get a glimpse of what she might consider doing in the future—starting with that point I mentioned up at the top of this post. Radwanska took more chances starting with that third game of the second set; she was more willing to attack when she had the opportunity, and she was less ready to retreat from the baseline under the withering firepower laid down by Azarenka. Those adjustments enabled Radwanska to stop the bleeding; she wasn’t broken again, but she was unable to stop Azarenka from serving it out, either.
While that change of tactics gave Radwanska some hope, they left unanswered a basic question: How can Radwanska stay in matches with top-notch, aggressive returns like Azarenka with that weak serve?
Hint: by making more first serves than her opponent, which Radwanska failed to do. She converted a decent 59 percent, but that wasn’t even as good as Azarenka’s mark (64 percent).
The rest of the statistical tale will be familiar: Azarenka hit 25 winners to 12 by Radwanska, and paid a modest price of just seven more unforced errors (24-17). Those are the kinds of numbers you get when strength matters.