Wimbledon: Radwanska d. Li

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Camerawork USA

Sometimes, a single game—even a single point—can encapsulate the main themes of an entire match. And when that point or game is the decisive one, the net result is one of those moments you never quite forget. We witnessed one of those games yesterday, the final one in Agnieszka Radwanska’s three-set triumph over Li Na in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

The final score was 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-2, but it was much closer than it looked, as attested by the two-hour and 43-minute elapsed time. This was a match of long, close games—and long, close points.

The final game, a hold by Radwanska, consisted of some 20 points overall, three break points that might have kept Li’s hopes alive, as well as six match points. Only one of those nine critical points was decided by anything resembling a sloppy error, and that was Radwanska’s double fault on her first match point of that game (she’d also had two match points in Li’s previous service game).

The themes rolled out in that final game were, first and foremost, the dogged, match-long battle between Radwanska’s defensive abilities and Li’s offensive probing on a day when both of the women were in good control of their assets. But we also saw Li bringing all her aggression and precision to bear on the single weakness in Radwanska’s game, her meek serve. The game also contained representative, textbook-grade defensive lobs by Radwanska and pretty approach-and-volley combinations by Li.

Thanks mainly to Radwanska’s defensive abilities, this game, as well as this match, was as striking and bitter a war as you’ll ever see on a tennis court. It’s good to know that you don’t need two powerful giants, nor two evenly matched, one-dimensional grinders, to produce tennis that is at once so exquisite and physically debilitating.

Each woman dropped her first service game at love, then settled into a holding pattern that was uninterrupted until the ninth game. Having fought off two break points in the eighth game, a confident Li broke when she forced a forehand error in a rally and followed with a forehand winner that put her in a position to serve out the first set at 5-4.

But Li was unable to hold that 10th game as both women ramped up their courage and dug in their heels. Li failed to convert four set points, partly because of Radwanska’s excellent defense, and then made a mental error that might haunt her for a long time.

On her fourth set point, Li hit an excellent, unreturnable first serve that was called out on the sideline. Although she had challenges left, she merely asked the chair umpire if she was sure and took her word that the ball was out. A replay showed that a challenge would have reversed the call; instead, Li went on to lose the point with a forehand error. That break set up the tiebreaker, which contained seven mini-breaks before Radwanska converted her first set point thanks to a Li backhand error.

By then, it looked as if Li might ultimately be able to break Radwanska down, physically. Unable to count on her first serve for any free points, or to start the point with a significant positioning advantage, Radwanska had to scramble and defend constantly, trying every trick in the book, from fake drop shots to gentle dinks and slices to blunt Li’s power.

The enduring image is one of Radwanska squatting, with her knees almost touching each other—and the ground—while her feet and ankles are rolled inward, a yard apart. Time and again, this truly extraordinary talent found ways to demonstrate her flexibility, tactically as well as physically.

The second set started after the first of two rain delays. Radwanska steamed ahead, breaking Li in the third game, at which point it looked as if Li was ready to quit. But she rallied and redoubled her efforts.

It was clear by then that Li’s game plan was to attack Radwanska rather than engaging her in baseline exchanges, and she was never better at it than in this middle portion of the set. She broke Radwanska for 4-all with an approach-and-drive-volley combination, and it put so much wind in her sails that she rolled to the finish, winning the final four games.

But Radwanska was not about to go away. Is there a player out there who so impressively combines mental toughness with what looks at times like an almost fragile physique and game? She broke Li in the first game and held. Li served the next game, but we had another rain delay before she could finish it. Although Li won the game-point when they resumed (with the Centre Court roof closed), Radwanska held and then added an insurance break and a hold to lead 5-1.

Li suddenly showed signs of renewed life in the next game—once she found herself down match point. Few players are as bold as Li when cornered, and she produced a drive volley winner to stave off one match point and a net-clipping, un-returnable forehand volley to save another. She went on to hold.

The epic last game began with Li angrily smacking a forehand service return into the net. But she was far from done. A gorgeous forehand flick volley winner, a Radwanska double fault, and another forehand winner suddenly gave Li two break points. But Radwanska batted away those two threats and it was off to the races, both women doing what they do best through the long game that finally put the Pole in the semifinals after one of the most entertaining matches in recent memory.

IBM Stat of the Match: The large number of net points played by each woman testified to the quality of the match, and their conversion rate demonstrates its closeness. Radwanska was 21 of 32 (66 percent) and Li was 48 of a whopping 71 (for 68 percent).

IBM is a proud sponsor and official technology partner for Wimbledon. For more information on this match, including the Keys to the Match, visit IBM's SlamTracker.

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