Go West, Ninja

Saturday, March 15, 2014 /by
Photos by Anita Aguilar
Photos by Anita Aguilar

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—After the first set of the semifinal between Agnieszka Radwanska and Simona Halep here on Friday night, Spider-Cam, that all-seeing black bug in the sky, closed in on Radwanska as she sat on the sideline during the changeover. When her face was shown on the big screens above the court, some of the fans around me began to chuckle. That was because, despite controlling the first set from the start and winning it 6-3, Radwanska appeared to be doing her best McKayla Maroney, “I’m not impressed” imitation:

This isn’t unusual, of course. This is how Aga looks. Last week I tuned into her third-round match with Annika Beck and caught her in the same pursed-lip look of pain. I assumed it was a tough day for her. I assumed wrong: She was up 6-0, 3-0. Radwanska would go on to win the last three games and beat Beck love and love. Not that there was any love involved: From the intense, meticulous way Radwanska played, those scores didn't seem to be an accident. She wanted the double bagel.

Radwanska played with a similarly meticulous intensity in her semi with Halep tonight. She had at least two reasons to be motivated: She had lost to the fast-rising Romanian—next week Halep will move up to No. 5, two spots behind Aga—in Doha last month, and she had never reached the final at Indian Wells, one of the WTA’s five biggest events outside of the Grand Slams. 

Aga was ready to go. She hit an ace to hold in the opening game, a sharp backhand pass to break in the second game, and a big swing volley to hold again for 3-0. When she loosened up and made a showy hook forehand pass and broke at love for 4-0, it looked Radwanska was, like Roger Federer on Thursday night, going to bring out her shot-maker’s palette and turn this into a master class in her own funky brand of tennis creativity.

“What I was trying to do,” Radwanska said afterward, “was play aggressive from the beginning of the match and just trying to go for my shots.”

But Halep, a 22-year-old Romanian who was ranked No. 47 a year ago and has been rocketing upward ever since, is too good to be toyed with, and too good for Radwanska to blow off the court. She bore down at the start of the second set and came up with her own bit of tennis artistry, ending her opening service game with a drop shot winner after a long rally. Halep lifted her index finger in the air in celebration; it made Radwanska jumpy enough that she leapt for an easy forehand at break point in the next game and stoned it three feet wide.

Halep said that her match with Radwanska in Doha affected the way she started this one, and that her attempt to change tactics backfired.

“I think I started the match [today] a bit too soft,” Halep said. “In Doha I started too aggressive, and here I said that I have to change to start the match in a different style. I did, but it wasn’t too good. I wanted to find my way to play. I did, but it was too late in the first set.”

When Halep did find her way, Radwanska switched hers. In the second set, she did whatever she could to make Halep run, and keep her out of the center of the court. After four games, Halep was visibly winded, while Radwanska was gaining steam. 

“I think we are both really good runners,” Radwanska said with the hint of a devilish smile. “I think we both like to run.” Especially, of course, when the other one does more running than you.

Next week Halep joins the Top 5, but this match showed where she might want to head next: The net. She had opportunities to close points against Radwanska, who spent much of the match in full scramble mode, but she let her off the hook a few times. Halep was just two for four at the net for the match.

As for Radwanska, she’ll play her first final in Indian Wells, after, as she said, “so many times coming here.” She said this was a “pretty good match,” and that "I was lucky," both of which were too humble. Like all artistic athletes, Radwanska has a perfectionist streak. When she shakes her head and stamps her foot in disgust after a lost point, she looks frustrated at a job not well done, at a failure to live up to her own high shot-making standards. That’s the problem, as John McEnroe might tell you, with knowing that you can do anything with a tennis racquet.

The question now for Radwanska is: How much does winning tournaments, rather than playing clever points and doing well from week to week, mean to her? And when she has a chance to win a big one, can she live up to the moment? In the two most important matches she’s played in the last year, the semifinals at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, Radwanska succumbed to the pressure of having a legitimate chance to win a Grand Slam.

Many players who start as creative types never turn themselves into champions; others, like McEnroe and Federer, do it in a big way. Radwanska has played this tournament with an artist's eye but a winner's edge, and on Sunday she could take home her biggest title since she won in Miami two years ago. Maybe finding out that her nickname among fans and the press is "Ninja"—Aga's the quietest killer at the top of the women's tour—will inspire her. 

Radwanska laughed at the name, but she sounds ready for the opportunity, and she even looks it, too. After her win over Halep, she unpursed her lips, broke into a grin, and high-fived her on-court interviewer. If only for a few moments, she looked impressed.

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