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20 Reasons Agnieszka Radwanska Is So Effective

Paul Fein

“Radwanska really is like a chess player, thinking a move or two ahead of every shot.” — Patrick McEnroe, ESPN analyst and former pro

In the fifty-five major championships and four Olympics played this century, power players prevailed all but twice—the exceptions being steady baseliner Anastasia Myskina and athletic all-courter Francesca Schiavone, the surprise winners at the 2004 and 2010 French Opens. In fact, many tennis fans remember with nostalgia Martina Hingis, the last woman champion to rule more with brains and finesse than brawn and force during 1997−1999.

Agnieszka Radwanska, a rare anomaly in this era of “Big Babe Tennis,” is bucking the seemingly irreversible trend with considerable success. Despite her slight 123-pound, 5’8” stature, Radwanska reached the 2012 Wimbledon final, and ranks No. 4 in the world. This year at Wimbledon, she knocked out power players Madison Keys, Tsvetana Pironkova, and No. 6 Li Na, all in tough three-setters. Then the 24-year-old Pole valiantly tried to stave off the rocket serves and potent forehands of Sabine Lisicki before succumbing 6-4, 2-6, 9-7 in what 1970s-1980s superstar Chris Evert called “as good a semifinal as I’ve seen in years.”

Click photo: As a young girl, Radwanska idolized the versatile, resourceful Hingis, and modeled her high-percentage game after hers.

As a young girl, Radwanska idolized the versatile, resourceful Hingis, and her own clever, high-percentage game is often likened to that of the 5’7” Hingis. “I think she's a great champion playing so smart tennis,” said Radwanska during Wimbledon. “So when I heard they were comparing me to her, it’s a very big compliment…. I don’t really have a body to serve 200 kph (124 mph). So I have to find a way to win matches.”

All the skills Radwanska uses and tactics she devises to win matches make her a fascinating competitor to watch and learn from. Let’s go to the Radwanska drawing board and find out why she’s so effective.

  1. Consistency is Radwanska’s calling card. She lost 115 points against Lisicki, but only 10 resulted from unforced errors. She had just 10 unforced errors against Keys, 11 against Pironkova, and 18 against Li. Contrast Radwanska’s total of 49 unforced errors with the combined total of 164 committed by those four opponents. Granted, these power hitters also took more chances and belted far more winners than the less aggressive Radwanska. Nonetheless, she never beats herself.
  1. Superb defense accounts for much of that consistency. “You think you’ve hit a winner, and she’s already there, and she gets three or four more balls back,” pointed out Evert, an ESPN analyst. “That’s why she’s so tough to beat.” That attribute also contributes to her opponents’ inconsistency. “Because she’s so good defensively,” noted Patrick McEnroe, another ESPN analyst, “you feel like you have to go for more on your shots than usual.” And that often causes errors.
  1. Anticipation, which the legendary Roger Federer credits as one of his main strengths, is a big key to Radwanska’s airtight defense. In fact, her coach, Polish Fed Cup coach Tomasz Wiktorowski, says her No. 1 asset is her great anticipation. “I love the way she anticipates the game so well,” agreed Darren Cahill, formerly Andre Agassi’s coach and now an ESPN analyst.
  1. Click photo: Radwanska hits topspin off both her forehand and backhand which produces more consistency.

    Other defensive attributes are her quick acceleration and court speed. Along with Sloane Stephens, Serena Williams, and Jamie Hampton, Radwanska ranks among the fastest court coverers on the women’s tour. “Radwanska glides along the baseline. She’s a great mover,” praised Evert.
  1. Topspin off both her forehand and backhand produces more consistency, all other things being equal, than flat groundstrokes, such as those of Sharapova, Li, and Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli. In her 7-6, 4-6, 6-2 quarterfinal victory over Li, Radwanska had a safe average net clearance of 31” compared to Li’s risky 23”. Topspin also kept Radwanska’s groundstrokes from sailing beyond the baseline, especially when she was hitting with the wind.
  1. Radwanska has no stroke weaknesses, unlike some top players. For example, Sharapova can’t smash an overhead, Caroline Wozniacki has a weak forehand, and Bartoli can’t hit a spin second serve. However, Radwanska’s second serve, while technically correct, lacks power, usually averaging an attackable 70 to 75 mph. She can correct that by simply increasing her racket head speed.
  1. This thinking woman’s player seldom overhits or underhits. For example, Radwanska doesn’t hit the ball close to the lines and risk errors, even though she can hit with pinpoint accuracy when necessary. When she can’t pass her opponent at net, she typically places the ball at her opponent’s feet to try to elicit an error or weak volley. “She’s so crafty, so thoughtful,” said Tennis Channel analyst Tracy Austin. “She has such great shot selection. She rarely makes a bad choice.”
  1. Click photo: Unlike some top players, Radwanska has no stroke weaknesses.

    Radwanska cleverly changes pace during rallies to disrupt the timing of opponents, particularly power hitters like Li, who sometimes then spray errors. “She breaks up your rhythm,” says Evert. “You never know what to expect; her game is unpredictable.”
  1. Radwanska is sometimes described as a counter-puncher because she uses her anticipation, speed, and versatility to attack opportunistically. She likes to attack weak serve returns, and she sprints forward punishing the ball when she sees a short floater. Against Li, she stepped up her offense on some pivotal points. To set up her seventh match point against the tenacious Li, Radwanska sneaked into the net and put away a forehand volley.
  1. Although Radwanska’s serve is clearly her weakest shot, even that has two positive attributes. Her accurate slice serve in the deuce box can produce errors and weak returns. She also boasts a high first serve percentage: 71% against Keys, 71% against Pironkova, 77% against Li, and 66% against Lisicki.
  1.  Radwanska possesses a wide variety of racket skills that are enhanced by her excellent hand-eye coordination. When she received a hard, deep, crosscourt forehand from Lisicki and belted a winner down the line, Austin commented, “Radwanska’s ability to re-direct and change the direction of the ball is second to none on the tour.”
  1. Like Wozniacki, Radwanska loves to use her opponent’s power, both offensively and defensively. When she is forced to absorb tremendous power on a deep shot, particularly on low-bouncing shots, she squats so low that one knee and even her derriere (on occasion) touch the court. “That’s definitely a trademark shot for her when she squats low for a backhand,” said Austin. “Most people can’t even get into this position, let alone hit an accurate shot from there. She’s very flexible.”    
  1. Click photo: Touch shots are also a hallmark in Radwanska's repertoire. She can hit deceptive, feathery, and well-placed drop shots as well as drop volleys.

    Touch shots are also a hallmark in Radwanska’s repertoire. Her deceptive, feathery, and well-placed drop shots and drop volleys as well as lob volleys win points and keep her opponents guessing. Like Federer, she also boasts a fake drop shot. With a backswing that makes it look like a drop shot is coming, at the last second Radwanska strokes a crisp, deep slice forehand that catches her opponent going, or at least leaning, the wrong way.
  1. Lack of power doesn’t necessarily hurt Radwanska in baseline exchanges against most players. Why? “She stands so close to the baseline and hits the ball early,” explained Austin. “It gets the same job done as pace, when you rush your opponent.”
  1. Radwanska can volley and smash competently, and unlike some players, is eager to get to the net whenever she can. In her four three-set matches, she won 89 of her 142 points at net for a respectable 61.5%. In both of her two straight-sets victories, she was 10 for 14 at net for 71%.
  1. While Radwanska doesn’t have a booming serve return like Sharapova or Serena, she returns almost every serve she gets her racket on. In her four close Wimbledon matches, she won an impressive 58% of the points returning second serves. “She has one of the best returns in the game,” praised Evert. In 2012, Radwanska finished second on the WTA Tour in break points converted (54.2%), fourth in return games won (47%), fourth in points won returning second serves (59.9%), and seventh in points won returning first serves (41.4%).
  1. In a lonely sport filled with momentum changes, Radwanska manages her attitude as well as she does her game. “Her body language is always very positive. She never seems to be down on herself,” said Evert, herself nicknamed “The Ice Maiden” for her coolness under pressure. “She’s unflappable. You can never tell if she’s winning or losing.” She showed little emotion when it took eight match points to finish off Li in their 2-hour, 43-minute duel.
  1. Radwanska plays well on all surfaces, reaching at least the quarterfinals at every major except the US Open. That her best results have come on fast grass is less surprising when you consider she fell in love with grass at first sight. “In 2005, after my first practice on grass, I said, ‘I just love grass.’ ”  She added. “I won [junior] Wimbledon right away. And it was a huge surprise that I won a Grand Slam [tournament] on a surface I never played on before. [Since then] I always look forward to the grass court season.”
  1. Like all premier counter-punchers, she’s a tireless, never-say-die competitor in the mold of Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, and Evert. This year, for example, she has a 7-2 record in tiebreakers, which often favor big servers, and a 7-3 record in three-set matches.
  1. Radwanska’s unusual style and tactics create a dilemma for today’s power players. “Against Agnieszka, if you decrease your power just a little bit, she gets more balls back,” explained Martina Navratilova, winner of an astounding 59 major singles and doubles titles. “And if you go for too much, you start making errors. [So] you have to be on against her. If you’re just a little off or just not good enough, Radwanska will make you pay for it. She drives you crazy.” No wonder Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, an ardent student of the game, says Radwanska is his favorite player to watch.

Just as power players can learn so much from the crafty Radwanska, she can and must learn from them. As the great Navratilova observed: “Defense doesn’t win matches; offense wins matches, especially Grand Slams.” So, if Radwanska becomes more aggressive, as Wilander did when he won three major titles in 1988, she will become a champion, too.  

As always, we would love to hear from you! Questions, comments, personal experiences all create helpful dialogue for everyone! Please click here to send us your email.

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