Tennis / Federation Cup / Brain Over Brawn

Elad Zeevi
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Elad Zeevi

More speed, more strength, more power. It often seems the key word in tennis today is “more.” That’s what makes Agnieszka Radwanska’s success all the more extraordinary.

Israelis will have the opportunity to watch this unique player in action when she joins the Polish team playing Israel in Eilat on Friday. Radwanska is the odd woman out in today’s tennis scene. At only 56 kilograms and 1.72 meters, she can’t deal powerful serves like Petra Kvitova, or consistently deliver the aggressive winners we often see from Serena Williams. And still, Radwanska is currently ranked fourth in the world.

“My body isn’t built to produce 200-kilometer-per-hour serves,” she explained at Wimbeldon, “so I must find other ways to win points. Sometimes I feel I was simply born to play the way I do.”

The Wall Street Journal recently described Radwanska as “the most refined and tactical player in women’s tennis.” Watching the 23-year-old on court, one can hardly disagree. While other players use their physical power to win, Radwanska kills softly. Her awareness allows her to cover the court and reach almost every ball, and she is capable of producing a wide variety of shots.

Her slices are measured, her lobs precise and her drop shot as accurate as can be. Her forehand is rather well known, since she produces it with a slight bend of the body that resembles sitting down (“I hear people whispering excitedly when I use that shot,” she says.). Her misleading moves reflect the fact that her mind works as hard as her legs. Her rivals often produce more winners, but more often than not the final result is in her favor.

Asked by the website The Tennis Space “How to play intelligent tennis,” Radwanska explained: “For me, it’s always been very important to learn a lot of different shots in practice. For example, I like to use the drop shot; it catches my opponents off guard and forces them to come to the net. And then you have drawn them out of position.”
“Studying your opponent allows you to play smart high percentage tennis,” she added. “If you understand court positioning and where the ball is going to come from, you will be able to anticipate your opponents shots before they are hit.”

Playing against Radwanska is therefore much more than an exercise in endurance. It is also a chess game that restarts anew with every point. And she often gives her opponents enough rope to hang themselves.\

“Everybody knows she’s some player,” Ana Ivanovic said after losing last month to the Pole at the Australia Open last 16. “She may not have too many winners, but she has good hands. She definitely can cause you to feel somewhat embarrassed, or lure you try something special. That’s her forte.”

Radwanska, already coined “the current generation’s Martina Hingis,” began training with her father when she was four, and her younger sister Ursula is also a pro, ranked 37th in the world. In 2005 she won the Wimbledon youth tournament and repeated the feat in the following year’s Roland Garros.

Unlike so many players who succeeded at the youth level but failed to make it later on in their careers, Radwanska has almost consistently been ranked in the top 10 since 2008, the same year she became the most successful Polish female player both in terms of rankings and profits. She naturally achieved celebrity status as well, and the iPhone application “Tennis with Radwanska,” which features a game against her avatar-like figure, became a best-selling app in Poland. “I played the game, but I’m not really good at it,” she admitted. “I’m probably much better off on a real court.”
Last year was Radwanska’s best yet. Her victory over Maria Sharapova in the final in Miami was termed by the Polish press “the victory of finesse over power.”

Her coach, Tomasz Wiktorowski, who is also the Polish Fed Cup captain, defined it a turning point in her career. “We have been aware of her talent for years, but such a victory was still missing,” he said probably aware of what the immediate future would hold. At Wimbledon, Radwanska made it to the finals and showed up sick but still managed to stretch Serena Williams to three sets before losing. Williams urged the crowd to give her opponent an extra round of applause: “Aga is really tough,” Williams said. “She has a fantastic career and she’s still so young.”

After her first Grand Slam Final, the first Polish woman to achieve such a feat in 73 years, she reached her record ranking, second in the world, and was chosen to bear the Polish flag at the London Olympics.

This year, Radwanska knows what she wants: a No. 1 ranking and a first Grand Slam Title. She arrived at Melbourne undefeated after winning the titles in Oakland and Sydney, but was defeated by Li Na at the quarterfinals. “I’ll just continue and try to achieve my next goals,” she declared afterwards. “The first goal is success at the Fed Cup with the national team.”

It might be unwise to bet against her she’ll probably do it using brain over brawn.

Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Jan. 2013.Credit: AP

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