Appreciating Agnieszka Radwanska: a one-of-a-kind shotmaker retires

by: Steve Tignor | November 18, 2018

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Tennis Channel Live: Thoughts on Agnieszka Radwanska's retirement from the game

 

With most players, even legendary players, I struggle to remember the first time I saw them in action. That’s not the case with Agnieszka Radwanska, the former world No. 2 and Wimbledon finalist who retired from tennis on Wednesday at age 29.

My first sighting of this cagey Krakow native is etched vividly in my mind. In the fall of 2005 or 2006, Tennis Channel was broadcasting a small indoor tournament from Europe. This wasn’t the type of event that would normally leave me glued to the TV, but there was something about the teenager who was on my screen that day. More specifically, there something about the way she hit the ball.

Radwanska, who had a fuller face and curlier hair in those early days, didn’t look or play like any of the WTA’s stars of that moment. She wasn’t a towering ball basher bent on intimidation, like her more famous fellow teen Maria Sharapova. She wasn’t a whirling athletic dynamo in the mode of the world No. 1 back then, Justine Henin. She didn’t even have especially elegant strokes, the kind that normally catch the eye. Hers were short slaps rather than long sweeps, and she made a lot of them from a painful-looking crouched position, like a hockey goalie.

But none of that mattered, because with this kid, it wasn’t about how she hit the ball; it was about all the different things she could make it do, and all the different places she could make it go. The swing was simple, but the contact was precise, and the result was almost always a surprise.

So I kept watching, and found that her demeanor was just as surprising, and appealing, as her game. For the most part, Radwanska walked calmly from one point to the next; her nickname, Ninja, came later, but she already had a knack for carving her opponents up with quiet élan. When Radwanska did get mad, her way of expressing it was just as unassuming, and just as unique. After missing a shot, she would wrinkle her nose and stamp her foot. Then she would move onto the next point, and onto her next silently vicious piece of racquet work.

I learned soon after that Radwanska had won the Wimbledon juniors in 2005 and the French Open juniors in 2006. Agnieszka and her younger sister, Urszula (Aga and Ula for short), were coached by their father, Robert, and they were pioneers of Polish tennis; in 2007, Aga would become the first woman from Poland to win a WTA event. As kids, Robert had Aga and Ula practice with balloons, which helped explain the velvet touch she could impart on a tennis ball.

Still, back then it was difficult to believe that Aga could thrive at the pro level. She weighed 125 pounds, and had the 75-m.p.h second serve to match. Her way of playing, which relied on consistency and creativity, seemed to have gone out of style with Martina Hingis. Radwanska appeared destined to be a cult player, an aficionados’ favorite, a side-court secret. So I did what any cultist lucky enough to go to tournaments would do: I trekked out to those side courts to watch her play. From there, it was easy to see how much athleticism and raw physical effort went into her game. Aga may have made it look easy on TV, but it was hard, scrambling work in reality.

It was also easy to see that Radwanska wasn’t going to remain a secret for long. She had an uncanny knack for controlling rallies without needing to overpower opponents, and she quickly rose in the rankings: From No. 57 to No. 26 and into the Top 10 by 2008, which is where she mostly stayed until 2017. Once there, Radwanska’s cult grew to include just about everyone who liked tennis. She won the WTA Fan Favorite Award each year from 2011 to 2016, and the Shot of the Year Award each year from 2013 to 2017.

That’s what she was known for: shots. There were the drop shots that she flipped crosscourt while running in the other direction. There were the volley-lobs that she turned from a circus shot into a reliable weapon. There were the short-angle volley winners carved within an inch of the net, and the no-look winners she hit while spinning around and plucking the ball out of thin air. There was the fake drop shot that she shoveled into the corner instead, and there was the squat shot that she hit from a near-sitting position. No player came up with as many ways to make fans shake their heads and laugh. Radwanska herself developed a suitably unassuming celebration after these hot shots: She laughed, raised her racquet above her head, and walked back to play the next point.

Radwanska carried that laugh with her off court, too. One year I was scheduled to interview her at Indian Wells; when she went down to a brutally quick defeat, I expected our chat to be canceled. Instead, she greeted me with a sleepy, sheepish smile and seemed happy to talk. Radwanska was an artist, but she was also a road warrior, and there was always another tournament for her. She had friends on tour, like Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber, who attended her wedding last year. But she also wasn’t afraid to criticize fellow players, like Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, when she thought it was warranted.

Her career reached its peak, and its limit, at Wimbledon in 2012 and 2013. The first year, she made the final and lost to Serena Williams in three sets; that month she also ascended to a career-high ranking of No. 2. But it was at Wimbledon in 2013 that she had her best chance at a major title, and when she suffered her most bitter defeat.

Most of the top seeds, including Serena, went out early that year. Radwanska survived the carnage, and a series of three-set matches, to reach the semifinals. There she faced Sabine Lisicki, a player she had beaten easily in their most recent match. Waiting in the final would be Marion Bartoli, a player who Aga had beaten in all seven of their previous meetings. When Radwanska went up a break in the third set against Lisicki, she must have felt as if the Wimbledon title was hers. But she couldn’t hold the lead, and she couldn’t bring herself to look Lisicki in the eye when she (briefly) shook her hand afterward.

Radwanska would win 20 WTA titles, including the season-ending championship in 2015. But while other players have continued to thrive into their 30s, she knew she had gone as far as she could at 29. 

“Unfortunately, I am no longer able to train and play the way I used to,” she wrote in her retirement announcement, “and recently my body can’t live up to my expectations...[I] have to concede that I’m not able to push my body to the limits required.”

Radwanska won’t be remembered as an all-time champion, and she probably won’t make the Hall of Fame. She’ll be remembered instead as one of those idiosyncratic talents who make the sport richer and more surprising; there haven’t been many players, man or woman, who could crack us up with their creativity the way she could. Radwanska pushed her body to the limit, but her shots went beyond.


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