No. 7 of '13: Two Players, One Dream
Seasickness: At the time, that’s how I described the feeling inside Centre Court as the momentum rocked back and forth between Sabine Lisicki and Agnieszka Radwanska at the end of their Wimbledon semifinal.
It was a queasy sensation I usually associate with a Grand Slam final, where every point can feel like the difference between immortality, and immortal disappointment. In its latter stages, as Lisicki and Radwanska went to 5-5, 6-6, 7-7, and beyond, this semifinal engendered a similar feeling. Which wasn't a surprise: It was assumed by most of us, after all, that this really was the final.
When they walked on court together, Lisicki and Radwanska knew that the opponent waiting for them two days later wouldn’t be Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka; it would be 15th-ranked Marion Bartoli. Radwanska, in particular, had to feel that if she could just get through this match, the trophy would be hers—she had a 7-0 career record against Bartoli.
Neither Lisicki nor Radwanska had ever been No. 1 or won a major title, but each recognized they had been given an opportunity to do something that so many other, more famous figures in the game have never done: Fulfill the first dream of every tennis player and win a Wimbledon title. That knowledge helped produce the most urgent tennis of the tournament—the two players made a combined 75 trips to net—and my seventh-best match of 2013.
Here’s a look at the highlights above, which cover the match's final eight games. There was good tennis before this stage, but here was where it began to escalate, in terms of quality, drama, and head-spinning volatility. This was when Centre Court back to rock back and forth a little, like a ship at sea.
—"Contrasts in style: They’re a big part of tennis’s appeal. And they’re a big part of watching Radwanska play. Her game is so oddly original that she automatically creates a contrast with every opponent she faces.”
That’s what I wrote in my report on this match, and it seems even more obvious watching again on tape six months later. Physically, the contrast with Lisicki makes it obvious how slight Radwanska is. And game-wise, this match featured the contrast that Aga almost always faces in the latter stages of majors: Her kitchen-sink point construction vs. the muscular, erratic power of her opponent.
—Few of Radwanska's opponents are as muscular, or as blindingly erratic, as Lisicki, and the difference in how they won points on this day couldn’t have been more stark—it was truly a case of opposites attacking. 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—the German hit 60 winners to Radwanska’s 21. Though as we see here, Lisicki isn’t without finesse. She used the drop shot well in this tournament, and she comes up with her own, Aga-like drop-lob combo to win a big point near the end.
Radwanska, of course, is all finesse—you need to be when your second serve averages 71 M.P.H. With Lisicki serving for the final at 5-4, Radwanska put on a master class. She hit a sharp-angled forehand drop shot at 0-15. She knocked back a hard first serve at 15-15 and eventually won the point with a stretch volley. And she earned two break points with a perfect lob.
And who but Aga would fake a drop shot and win a point with a teasingly slow backhand slice at 5-5 in the third set of the Wimbledon semifinals?
—But power trumps all at women's majors, and it did again on this day. The most crucial shot of this match was Lisicki’s second serve at 5-6 and deuce. Radwanska was two points from the final and had the momentum, while Lisicki looked ready to implode. But she came up with a 100-M.P.H. second ball to win the point. It was a shot that Aga remembered well.
“I had a lot of chances,” she said in a low, fading voice afterward. “Just two points from the match. You know, then she serves a second serve like 100 miles an hour. Then it turns the other way.”
Radwanska was more disappointed and shaken than I’d ever seen her. She may have thought Lisicki was lucky to come up with that serve, lucky in a way that she could never be, because she’ll never hit one that hard. After winning three straight three-set matches, she was also weary, and you could see that near the end.
“I could feel that in every part of my body,” Radwanska said. “I think if we play two days from now, it would definitely be a different match.” Bitter words, perhaps, but it's hard to dispute them after watching Lisicki's frozen performance two days later, in the final.
—Still, Lisicki earned this win, the same way she had earned her win over Serena Williams earlier that week. At Wimbledon, she left her vulnerabilities behind and found the belief that her best game would be there when she needed it. There was no luck involved in her final hold at 8-7. Lisicki loves this tournament, and it loves her back; she was the crowd favorite in this match. But the fans would be no help when her run of good form ran out in the most agonizing way against Bartoli in the final.
—The volume of grunting escalates along with the pressure here. When Aga joins in, you know things are tense. In this case, though, the noise doesn’t detract from the play; it provides a soundtrack to the desperation.
—Unfortunately, this one will be remembered as much for its sad final act as it will be for the brilliance that led up to it. With Lisicki face down in the grass after her final forehand winner, 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, and an outstretched hand pulling away fast. Asked about the brush-off later, Radwanska said, “Should I just be there and dance? What could I do?”
“When you went that far to the semifinal, no Serena, Maria, Vika...” Radwanska said, her voice trailing off. “Yeah, I definitely am disappointed.”
Lisicki's joyous collapse; Aga's brusque departure: With an improbable dream so close to coming true, there was no way for either of these players to hide what the match and the moment had meant to them.