Madrid: Sharapova d. Radwanska

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For a while in this semifinal match in Madrid, it looked as if Agnieszka Radwanska was on the verge of absorbing perhaps the most humiliating loss of her career at the hands of Maria Sharapova. She had won a grand total of just 11 points in the entire first set (in which she never held serve), and she trailed 0-3 in the second.

Thankfully, at least for Radwanska, Sharapova lost the plot for a few games in the second set, so the final result was merely cringe-inducing (rather than outright grotesque). Sharapova took it, 6-1, 6-4 in an hour and eight minutes to book a place in the final opposite Simona Halep.

It was nearly painful to watch most of this match, given how much talent Radwanska has —  and how egregiously she mis-employs it in matches with Sharapova. Radwanska, who was seeded No. 3 here to Sharapova’s No. 8, was broken in the very first game, at love, and it only got worse from there because Sharapova was at her ball-belting best.

Radwanska isn’t an erratic player; her technique is excellent, and her defense outstanding even if her offense lacks punch. So when she’s losing even long rallies to a player like Sharapova, she needs to think of a Plan B, with an upper-case “P” for emphasis. And, given that she was 2-9 against Sharapova going into this one, a Plan B certainly was in order.

This she seems astonishingly unwilling to do, and it reminds me of that old saw, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.” Granted, Sharapova was playing brilliant and nearly flawless tennis, but that’s no excuse for retreating into the role of by-stander and just continuing to feed her balls to whack away for winners. If anything, it’s the perfect opportunity to try something new and bold.

One thing I kept wondering is why, given all that great feel and talent for hitting off-speed balls, Radwanska didn’t just try to chip and dink and drop-shot Sharapova out of rhythm? Sure it’s easier said than done, but then Arthur Ashe won the Wimbledon final over Jimmy Connors in one of the most resounding upsets in Grand Slam finals history that way. After all, it wasn’t like Radwanska could look any worse out there, right?

The only bright spot for Radwanska in the set was an utterly unexpected break of Sharapova in the third game. There’s a good chance it happened only because Radwanska had lulled Sharapova to sleep with her predictable and predictably ineffectual game plan.

After that brief glitch, Sharapova rolled through the next three games. At set’s end, Sharapova had 11 winners to one by Radwanska (I believe that winner was the only drop shot Radwanska tried, and that tells you something), while each woman made six unforced errors. Radwanska had won a grand total of just four points on her serve, and it wasn’t entirely because her second serve is a glaring weakness. Sharapova simply was putting the stick to everything.

Sharapova continued to dominate through the first few games of the second set but, as is so often the case, when she fell out of “the zone” she fell far —  and fast.

Suddenly Sharapova was getting her feet all tangled and making wild errors. Radwanska upped her own game, playing with greater force and precision. She won three games on the trot and suddenly it looked as if her decision the stay the course rather than adopt a radical Plan B might have been a wise one. Call it Polish rope-a-dope.

Radwanska managed to get ahead 4-3 (on serve) but she was unable to sustain the lead as Sharapova broke her in the next game. From deuce, Sharapova hit a lucky let-cord backhand winner, and then Radwanska hit a backhand into the doubles alley to render the break that leveled the set at four games apiece.

A hold was imperative for Sharapova at that point, and she got it in a game that contained a point that illustrated wonderfully how much her footwork and reaction time has improved. At 15-love, the women exchanged in a rally of sharply angled balls. One of them, by Sharapova, drew Radwanska so far off the court that her terrific get traveled back outside the net post under the umpire’s chair (rather than over the net) and landed in Sharapova’s forehand corner. But Sharapova got there —  barely —  and jerked back a forehand cross-court winner with her back to the net to win the point.

That bit of bladework seemed to discourage Radwanska from further resistance. Sharapova went on to hold with ease and she recovered from 0-30 in the next game to run off four consecutive points against Radwanska’s serve to win.


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