Australian Open: Radwanska d. Azarenka

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It was a triumph of art over industry. 

Agnieszka Radwanska halted her painful, seven-match skid against Victoria Azarenka, struck a rare blow for creative tennis in an age when power rules, and bolted into the semifinals of the Australian Open thanks to an unexpected and sometimes incredible upset of the defending champ and No. 2 seed. Radwanska’s margin of victory was 6-1, 5-7, 6-0, and the match lasted exactly two hours.

It was two hours of bliss for romantics and dreamers, except for the middle bit, where it seemed Azarenka would stem the tide and once again come through for the realists and literalists out there.

The most striking element of this match was the way the fifth seed rebounded after she lost the second set. After all, their head-to-head record (a lopsided 12-3 in favor of Azarenka), along with the way Azarenka had feasted on Radwanska’s powder-puff second serve in the second set—and imposed her severe, one-dimensional game—all pointed toward a furious comeback win by the now-deposed two-time champion. But Radwanska didn’t just play that final act with touch and resourcefulness that seemed a gift from the gods, she competed with vigor and resolve.

Radwanska can make ball punishers of Azarenka’s ilk look ham-fisted and dull, but actually beating them instead of merely harassing them has thus far been too daunting a task. But the way Radwanska elevated her game today suggests that she may yet deliver the big win that earns her a place in the history books, and justified the faith of all those fans out there who view tennis through the lens of an aesthete. 

Azarenka toted an 18-match winning streak Down Under into this clash, and she looked stronger and stronger with each passing round. But she was broken in the second game of this match, and after a quick hold by Radwanska she was broken again. Before you knew it, it was 5-0 for Radwanska. But as impressive as that looked on the scoreboard, the reality is that Radwanska didn’t do anything special to earn the lead. All she had to do was hit the ball into the court, because Azarenka invariably would then hit it out.

To her credit, Azarenka didn’t let the set go even from that hopeless position. She knew that if she could get her teeth into the match, her recent history with Radwanska could form a lump in the Polish girl’s throat. With Radwanska falling back almost exclusively on defense, Azarenka managed a hold for 1-5. She reached 30-all in the next game, but Radwanska forced Azarenka into a cross-court forehand error, and then hit a sublime drop shot that Azarenka was unable to return. First set to Radwanska.

The first two games of the second set were telling. With her back to the wall and in desperate need to put pressure on Radwanska, Azarenka fought off three break points and survived four deuces to hold the first game. In an equally long second game, Radwanska fought off two break points, the second with a drop-shot lob combo that ended with Azarenka flailing impotently at the ball as it floated over her head and fell well inside the baseline. 

It was the kind of point that can make a beaten player seethe with anger and a deep desire for revenge; nobody likes to be made a fool of that way. But Azarenka had to swallow back her bile as Radwanska breezily went on to hold for 1-1. She wasn’t going away, and to prove it, she fired the first damaging blow of the second set, breaking Azarenka to take a 3-2 lead. 

That was about the time when whatever demons had infiltrated this once promising rivalry tend to take over. Thus, Azarenka broke back with alarming ease, and as the ensuing games rolled by two things became clear: Azarenka was slowly asserting control of the match with her punishing ground strokes, and Radwanska was making Azarenka’s life much easier by struggling to find the box with her first serve. One stat told it all: In the first set, Radwanska won 75 percent of her second-serve points; in the second set, she won just 33 percent. Radwanska put barely half her first serves into play in set two.

Still, the fluctuations in Azarenka’s game combined with Radwanska’s talents as an escape artist kept the games close. It was Radwanska who finally blinked, losing the 12th game of the set to spare both women the stress of having to play a tiebreaker.

Azarenka’s spirits were buoyed; you couldn’t blame her for thinking that she had managed to recover from a horrific start to re-assert her superiority. But Radwanska, cool as ever, was undeterred. She broke Azarenka in a nine-minute first game that served as a preview of the astonishing third set. 

In that game, Radwanska hit the shot of the match during an exchange with both women moving aggressively forward. A furious back-and-forth near the net ended when Radwanska nearly fell over reaching for a ball that looked to be past her, but which she managed to take with a gentle touch that sent it floating back cross-court for a clean winner. End result: A 1-0 lead for Radwanska.

The next game may have been the most crucial one of the match. Azarenka won the first point, but Radwanska then hit a super-casual forehand drop shot which Azarenka barely managed to dig up and push back across the net. Radwanska was there, in no man’s land, her arm and racquet stretched out like that of a waitress offering a tray filled with champagne flutes. The ball gently caromed off the face of the racquet and drifted serenely over the head of Azarenka. 

From there, Azarenka won just one other point—and nearly decapitated a linesperson with a ball after she gave up the game with a backhand error. The fight seemed to drain out of Azarenka soon after that, as she played a terrible, listless service game to go down 0-3. For her part, Radwanska continued to put on a clinic in clever shot-making that carried her to a second 5-0 lead of the match, and this time she didn’t allow Azarenka a face-saver. 

Of course, all Azarenka seemed to want to do with her face by then was hide it.

Stat of the Match: Despite being famous for having a weak serve, Radwanska managed to win 72 percent of her first- serve points (33 of 46) while Azarenka couldn’t even crack the break-even mark. She won just 48 percent (26 of 54) of her first-serve points.

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