Women’s tennis is in a very good place these days. Quality, depth, youth, competitive chops — they exist in abundance on a WTA Tour which has made the notion of an “easy draw” almost unheard of in 2018. Within this environment, Agnieszka Radwanska has found it hard to endure. That’s no criticism of her. Every athlete has a different shelf life, and Radwanska — who won her first WTA Tour title in 2007 at the age of 18 — enjoyed more than 10 years in the big leagues. That’s not exactly a brief career, even if Radwanska ended it on Wednesday at the age of 29.
Radwanska was a fixture in women’s tennis this decade, a regular presence in the sport’s most important tournaments until very recently. She never did chase down the major title Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep nabbed, but her legacy will be much greater than any attempt to bean-count tournaments won or lost.
Radwanska — playing in the late-career golden age of Serena Williams — picked the wrong time to be a thriving professional tennis player in the heart of her prime. If she had been born a few years earlier or later, she might have had better chances to win more of the most prestigious tournaments in the sport. As it is, she still battled Serena well in her one major final, the 2012 Wimbledon championship match which went to a third set. Radwanska was still relevant in 2016, making the Australian Open semifinals before Serena played her best tennis and defeated Poland’s 21st-century tennis star.
A 2015 WTA Finals champion and a five-time Premier Mandatory/5 winner, Radwanska — once the World No. 2 player at the height of her powers — did more than merely survive on tour for roughly a decade. No, she didn’t quite conquer the sport and lay it at her feet, but she made a very comfortable place for herself on a tour which did not play the way she played.
Radwanska carved out her own path, a reality which should serve as a lesson to younger players today.
Yes, Angelique Kerber drop-shotted Serena to death in the Wimbledon final. Yes, Magdalena Rybarikova made an out-of-nowhere run to the 2017 Wimbledon semifinals. Yes, Timea Bacsinszky has reached the Roland Garros semifinals. There are terrific practitioners of all-shot excellence in women’s tennis who have used their deft touch and clever play to achieve well… but Radwanska is the foremost exemplar of this way of being. She got more mileage out of it than her peers who tried the same approach.
Ultimately, Radwanska is the best embodiment in modern women’s tennis of how far variety can carry a player in what is often a cookie-cutter sport.
Women’s tennis is very healthy, as I noted at the start of this piece. Yet, when considering how it could become even better, an answer which always rises to the surface of consciousness is the addition of more variety into rallies.
So many women’s tennis matches put the ball on a string. Forehands and backhands, hit hard and consistently and well, from two players who move laterally just behind the baseline, create powerful and involving exchanges. The drama is considerable and the intensity unmistakable… but are the two players using the best, most direct route to winning a point? Not all the time. When two players are on the same level in terms of talent or the present day’s form, it makes sense to want to trade punches and see if your strength is stronger than your opponent’s strength. The natural and sound logic behind that approach is obvious: If you can break down your opponent’s strength, you win every important battle in a match — the tactical battle, the mental battle, the physical battle. If you are on even terms with another player and you think your strength can win the day, sure, go for it. That’s smart.
When variety comes into the picture is when the other player is more talented or — if not necessarily TALENTED — physically imposing. When you know another athlete has a higher ceiling of skill and potential and is demonstrating the capacity to actualize said potential, you can’t go blow for blow with that superior game. You, as the opponent, have to find ways to disrupt that superior game and get the better athlete to hesitate, doubt and overthink.
Tennis, like baseball, is a sport played with a stick the athlete swings in order to hit a ball hard. In baseball, the old saying is that “Good pitching stops good hitting.” Pitchers try to throw pitches at speeds and locations which cause talented hitters to hesitate, doubt, and overthink. The hitter who is comfortable will hit the ball hard and squarely. The hitter who is uncomfortable will still hit the ball, but not on the sweet spot of the bat. A hitter aspires to hit the ball very long or very hard, if not both. A good pitcher causes hitters to hit the ball short distances, generally on the ground, and with very little velocity.
It is much the same in tennis. How can a player hit shots the opponent will struggle to handle? How can a player cause her opponent to make more errors, or to hit short balls which can be turned into winners? How can a player turn a ferocious hitter into a hesitant, error-spraying machine who is completely off balance?
Variety — that’s how.
Not feeding pace — that’s how.
Angles — that’s how.
Taking the ball early to deprive the opponent of extra time in which to retrieve a shot — that’s how.
Agnieszka Radwanska, the queen of court craft, studied and developed those arts to near-perfection. Her low and deep knee bends enabled her to quickly and accurately redirect a screaming return of serve hit right at her. The quickness of the redirection deprived the opponent of time to reset after hitting that go-for-broke return. Radwanska turned her opponents’ power against them.
Radwanska realized better than most that on a tour loaded with powerful baseline hitters who loved the ball-on-a-string nature of traditional diagonal rallies and patterns, an ability to change speeds and create angles would get those hitters out of their strike zones. Radwanska used all of a ball to shape her shots. She used a fuller arsenal of speed variations and placements than most. She incorporated net play into her game more than most.
What was the result of this constant offering of variety? Radwanska made a lot out of a career which regularly lacked an imposing serve. To be more precise, few players in recent memory got more out of an assortment of tennis skills which did not include a particularly effective serve.
So many players — men in particular, but women as well — fit into the category of players who need their serve to be effective in order to win matches. A broader layer of players don’t necessarily need their serve to be great, but they do need to hit a very hard, flat assortment of groundstrokes in order to feel they are in control of a match. If their powerful shots aren’t finding the mark, they don’t have a Plan B.
Agnieszka Radwanska never ran into that problem. Despite a serve which constantly limited her margin for error, she attained World No. 2, battled Serena for a Wimbledon title, and produced an outrageously successful career.
This is how far variety can take a tennis player. Young tennis players can learn a lot from Aga.
If young players can learn an enormous amount from your career, your legacy in the larger run of tennis history is substantial.
This is what the name “Radwanska” will continue to mean 20, 30 and 50 years from now.