Full Flight Ninja

by: Steve Tignor | October 29, 2015

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“That tiebreaker was something else, and I just managed to make some great shots in the important moments,” Agnieszka Radwanska said after beating Simona Halep, 7-6 (5), 6-1, at the WTA Finals on Thursday.

There are overstatements, there are understatements, and then there are plain statements of fact. Radwanska’s words were the latter. Hitting great shots in important moments: How else could the cagey Pole, with a trip to the semifinals in Singapore on the line, have come back from 1-5 down to win 7-5? 

Aga being Aga, though, these weren’t run-of-the-mill, belt-the-ball-past-the-other-player winners. They came, as they tend to do with her, in all shapes and sizes. 

At 1-5, Radwanska watched a Halep lob go up, turned her back to the net, and somehow angled a backhand overhead—the toughest shot in tennis—to the one spot where Halep wasn’t. At 2-5, she powered a forehand into the corner that forced an error. At 3-5, she slid a service winner up the T. At 4-5, she drilled a forehand return winner; it was the hardest ball she hit all night. Radwanska closed the set with a characteristically kitchen-sink finish, winning the point of the tournament with a slice forehand, a reflex pass, a no-look defensive lob, a slice forehand approach (crosscourt, of all places), another no-look backhand overhead, and a forehand pass. 

Death by a thousand nicks, cuts and slices: That’s how losing to John McEnroe used to be described, and the same can be said for his (much quieter) partner in tennis swordplay, Radwanska. This is how ninjas should always end their seasons, right? The final point of the tiebreaker not only won Radwanska the first set, but the second as well; Halep, after throwing everything into the 73-minute opener, had nothing left for the follow-up, which was over in half an hour.

Even the ever-reticent Radwanska snuck in a fist-pump near the end of the match, and afterward admitted that she hadn’t been half-bad.

“I think I was really playing great tennis today,” she said, in another plain statement of fact. 

Radwanska also admitted that she played well in part because she had nothing left to lose. She was 0-2 in Singapore, and had already begun to transition to the off-season.

“To be honest I didn’t practice yesterday,” Radwanska said. “I was really tired and I’m falling apart a little bit as well.”

“I think I’ll have to take more [days] off,” she said with a laugh.

Radwanska rarely ends with more winners than her opponents, but today she finished ahead of Halep, 30 to 20. The famously finesse-oriented Aga was the one playing from inside the baseline and taking full-blooded swings with her forehand. That aggressiveness allowed her to open the court, and gave her time to work her customary magic in a way that we hadn’t seen all year.

While Radwanska finished the round-robin stage of the WTA Finals, and her season, on an up note, Halep’s 2015 has come to a disappointingly early end. This event was in many ways a test run for the Romanian, who has been considered a virtual lock to win a Grand Slam someday. With Serena Williams absent, it was the biggest tournament in which she was the top seed. Rather than grabbing the opportunity, though, she finished 1-2 and walked off looking exhausted.

“I was done,” Halep said when asked how she felt after losing the first-set tiebreaker. “No energy anymore. I was tired. I felt that I lost the chance to win the match in that moment.”

“My coach was telling me many things, but I couldn’t hear because I was done...”

The end of Halep’s 2015 echoed its beginning: In January, she waved the white flag in a 6-4, 6-0 loss to Ekaterina Marakova at the Australian Open; today she went away quickly against Radwanska. To be fair, Halep did keep fighting with the little energy she had; but in a year in which she lost in the second round at the French Open and the first round at Wimbledon, this marks another early exit from an important event. Measured by her ranking—she'll finish No. 2—this was a very successful season for Halep, but it's also one where she went 4-6 against opponents ranked in the Top 10.

Halep gamely tried to take something positive from the loss.

“You know, it's good that happened,” she said of her rapid second-set demise. “Next time I’ll know that if I’m not well-prepared physically I have just to do something else on court.”

What would this “something else” be? Looking at Halep's play this week, and thinking ahead to next year, two things come to mind. 

From a mental standpoint, she could help herself by understanding that perfectionism in tennis only makes a tough sport even tougher. Not every miss is the end of the world, or a sign of terrible things to come—mistakes, as they say, will be made, and that's OK. Despite being up 5-3 in the first-set breaker, Halep ranted at herself after missing a forehand long, then lost the next four points. 

From a physical standpoint, Halep was at her best in this event when she moved forward, cut off the angle on her opponents’ ground strokes, and hit the ball from inside the baseline. This is easier said than done, of course, but Halep’s game, which is based on changing the direction of the ball and pushing her opponents across the baseline, really starts to click when she takes her shots earlier. 

While Halep’s off-season begins, Radwanska must be pleasantly surprised to have at least one more match to play. Everyone should fall apart the way she does.

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