Two Players, One Chance

Thursday, July 04, 2013 /by
Camerawork USA
Camerawork USA

WIMBLEDON, England—Contrasts in style: They're a big part of tennis's appeal. And they're a big part of the appeal of watching Agnieszka Radwanska play. Her game is so oddly original that she automatically creates a contrast with every opponent she faces. Today that opponent in the semifinals here was Sabine Lisicki, and the two teamed up to give us a classic overtime third set, one that escalated in quality, drama, and head-spinning volatility from first ball to last. 

Neither of these women has ever been No. 1 or won a major title, but each recognized they had an opportunity to do something that so many other, more famous figures have never done: Fulfill the first dream of every tennis player and win a Wimbledon title. As they warmed-up, Aga and Sabine knew that the opponent waiting in the final wouldn’t be Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka (not to mention Steffi Graf or Martina Navratilova). It would be world No. 15 Marion Bartoli. As fine a player as the Frenchwoman is, Radwanska is 7-0 against Bartoli, and Lisicki is 3-1. At times, this semifinal felt less like a match than an all-out sprint for the chance to go up against Mad Marion. As momentum rocked back and forth between Radwanska and Lisicki in the final games, there was a nervous intensity—a seasickness—inside Centre Court that I usually associate with a Grand Slam title match.

The contrast here was the usual one that Radwanska faces in the latter stages of majors: Her kitchen-sink point construction vs. the muscular, erratic power of her opponent. But few of her opponents are as muscular, or as blindingly erratic, as Lisicki. The German, who has never been ranked higher than No. 12, goes from red hot to ice cold without warning. With Lisicki and Radwanska today, it was a case of opposites attack. The combination of their games produced some of the most urgent all-court tennis of the tournament. They made 75 trips to the net between them.

But the difference in how they won points couldn’t have been more stark. Lisicki won with 115-M.P.H. first serves (her top speed was 122), ground strokes taken early and thumped to the corners, and returns that knocked Radwanska onto her heels. She also won an impressive 32 of her points at the net, out of 44 approaches. As for Radwanska, she was able to turn things in her favor when she found a way to move the bigger Lisicki side to side and up and back. It’s hard to imagine, at 5-5 in the third set of a Wimbledon semifinal, that anyone other than the artful Aga would fake a drop shop, pull back, and slice a backhand deep into the corner. It worked, too; Lisicki, fooled, overran Radwanska’s teasingly slow-moving slice.

Even without Serena and Maria around, though, force remains the most reliable route to success in tennis, as well as to the Wimbledon final. Power ultimately won out over finesse in this clash of styles, and Lisicki won out 6-4, 2-6, 9-7. The match resided on Lisicki’s racquet—she hit 60 winners to Radwanska’s 21—and in the end the physical hill was too much for Aga to climb. Her second serve, which averaged 71 M.P.H., was routinely pummeled, and she said she was tired by the end.

“I was trying,” Radwanska said of her effort through the final games. Her previous three matches had all gone the distance. “But I think it wasn’t enough. I could feel that in every part of my body. I think if we play two days from now it would be definitely a different match.”

Asked to tell us what she would remember from this tournament, Radwanska said, “A lot of tennis, a lot of three-set matches, a lot of running.”

Still, she almost climbed the mountain. Aga broke Lisicki when the German served for the match at 5-4 in the third, and reached deuce on Lisicki’s serve at 5-6. Momentum was hers.

“I had a lot of chances,” Radwanska said in a low, sometimes-fading voice afterward. “Just two points from the match. You know, then she serves a second serve like 100 M.P.H. Then it just turns the other way.”

Aga, who was more disappointed and shaken than I’d ever seen her, said those words with a mix of wistfulness and bitterness. She may have thought Lisicki was lucky to come up with that 100-M.P.H. second serve, lucky in a way that Radwanska could never be, because she’ll never hit one that hard. A few minutes later, though, on another deuce point, Lisicki barreled forward and knocked off a swing volley winner. Power used fair and square, no luck involved.

This match, unfortunately, may be remembered as much for its final act as for everything that came before it. As Lisicki fell to the court after her forehand winner at match point, Radwanska walked straight to the chair umpire and shook her hand. When Lisicki reached the net, all she saw was the back of Aga's head—Radwanska had already turned it the other way by the time she stuck her arm out for the handshake. There’s been talk this week that the German has irritated some of her fellow players with her celebratory waterworks, but there’s no doubt this was the toughest of tough losses for Radwanska.

Asked why she had left the court so abruptly, she said, “Should I just be there and dance? What could I do?”

The reporter answered, “Sometimes you see people really congratulate the opponent after a match that’s as close as that.”

“I mean, I didn’t feel like that at that point,” Radwanska said flatly.

There must have a been a part of Aga that felt like she had been two points from winning the Wimbledon title, and had lost. She came into the interview room nearly in tears, but after a few minutes with the Polish press, who know her well, she was joking and smiling again. Radwanska had given everything, but she knew she had let a huge chance slip.

"When you went that far to the semifinal, no Serena, Maria, Vika..." her voice trailed off. "Yeah, I definitely am disappointed."

Instead it's Lisicki, the stopper who won’t stop, who will have that chance on Saturday. She said today that she had taken heart from her win over Serena Williams; both times she was down a break in the third set. Throughout this tournament, there has been a purposeful edge to Lisicki’s play and demeanor that I can’t remember seeing before.

“I just hung in there and played every single point,” was her only explanation for today’s win. Again, the key was keeping her inevitable chilly streaks from turning her game to ice.

For this fortnight, at least, Lisicki has done something we rarely see among players outside the Top 5: She’s left her vulnerabilities behind and found the belief that her best game will be there when she needs it. The inspiration, as it is for so many other players, is Wimbledon. Lisicki loves the place, and it loves her back. The crowd was clearly in her corner today.

“There’s no better feeling in the world,” Lisicki said, “to have so much support on that beautiful Centre Court here.”

“The first time that I was here,” Lisicki said, “I don’t remember when it was, but when I was here I fell in love with Wimbledon. It was the place I wanted to play at, because as a little girl you never know what’s going to happen. It was always a dream to play on Centre Court and win the tournament.”

Playing on Centre Court was the first part of a young Sabine’s dream. Today she earned her chance at the second—by a serve, and a nose.

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