Radwanska brings back some brain to women’s tennis

It seems I am destined, at least for now, to react differently to developments in tennis from large sections of the tennis following crowd.  An almost funereal mood set in following Agnesia Radwanska’s win over Maria Sharapova at Miami last Saturday, one of the most important non slam events on the tour.   Some people claimed they were through with tennis and most generally lamented the victory of a boring counterpuncher and feared she would be the next Caroline Wozniacki (who, by the way, is not quite as deplorable as she is made out to be).

I have to ask only this:  if you think it is so tragic to see Maria Sharapova lose, or indeed that brand of tennis failing, I wonder if we are both even watching the same game.  I wonder what is that greatness that you are looking for in this game.  You should have perhaps quit watching women’s tennis when someone like Sharapova became the benchmark (in your eyes).

Don’t get me wrong, I am not some Sharapova hater (and yeah, I have no objection to grunting as long  as the rules permit it, sorry).   I think she has great ability to manufacture powerful shots off both sides – forehand and backhand.   I also have to laud the self confidence of a player who took it to Serena Williams in her first Grand Slam Final…and on the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon, no less.

But Sharapova, like several other of her contemporaries, lacks a plan B.   She does not step out on court with any particular, well thought out strategy to construct points.  She does not rely much on using the court.  Her approach is basically to whack the ball harder and harder and also work more and more incredible angles until the opponent simply can’t get to it.  It can make for spectacular winners but can also fail against good defence.  And that is all that happened on Saturday.  Or, for that matter, against World No.1 Victoria Azarenka at Melbourne or Indian Wells.

Radwanska had a plan for Sharapova and she executed it immaculately.  It would be rather hasty of us to conclude that she was simply putting the ball back in.  She made sure Sharapova did not get much pace to work with and anticipated her (admittedly predictable) plays well and made it that much harder for her to find winners.  Sharapova did find her winners, nevertheless, but she also made way too many unforced errors for comfort.  These errors were less on account of unusually erratic play from Sharapova and more about Radwanska making her impatient.

So it is baffling to see Radwanska’s approach attract censure.  Lately, people have lamented the lack of stars in the women’s draw to replace the aging Clijsters or Williams sisters.  Well, what is it then that you expect of this dream star player that you desire to follow?  Just the ability to produce spectacular power hitting?  Or the ability to construct points and outthink and outplay your opponent?

When I began to watch tennis in the 90s, the men’s and women’s draws nicely contrasted each other, giving audiences a different experience to savour.   The men’s game was fast and furious, with serves flying past the receiver in a blur and points were generally short but explosive.  The women’s game was slower but more drawn out and cerebral.  Nobody could ace out their opponent then, not even Steffi Graf, so players had to build rallies well and slowly but surely wrest the initiative to land the sucker punch.  The patience of players to build and hang on in long rallies as also the depth of their offence and defence would be tested in these matches.

But after the arrival of the Williams sisters, the women’s game has become more power oriented and players try to manufacture winners off the second or third stroke of a rally.   It is celebrated in some quarters as a positive approach but what is forgotten somewhere is that the Williams sisters don’t only rely on sheer power to win rallies.  Both Venus and Serena seize the opportunity to move forward and cut the short ball.  They may not have Martina Navratilova’s number at the net, but they have the requisite skills to execute smashes and volleys to close points quickly.  In other words, court craft.

First Azarenka and now Radwanska are bringing back court craft to the women’s game.  Sharapova won her first Slam title in 2004 and in 8 years, one surely expects her game would have shown more development.   If she could not counter Radwanska’s tactics, it says more about the weaknesses in her game than it does about Radwanska.  By the by, you could watch Radwanska’s match against Venus in the same tournament to see how she adapts her tactics aptly to counter the opponent she is facing.

She may not yet be a formidable powerhouse, but, far from berating her, we should celebrate the fact that a player has shown the inclination and ability to build a game that doesn’t just depend on power but also astute tactics.   For all that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic may pull off unbelievable winners regularly, it is the unfailing solidity of their game that makes them so consistent.    No great champion with many slams to his or her name has got there without solidity.  To that extent, at least Radwanska has taken a decisive step towards honing a winning game that Sharapova did not.  Hopefully, this is just the start of  many more great things to come from this player.

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2 Responses to “Radwanska brings back some brain to women’s tennis”

  1. rjsays Says:

    Your thoughts exactly echo that of mine, except that I really have a problem with Sharapova’s grunts and her one dimensional mindless power game. And happy to see the brains of Radwanska conquering the brawns of Masha.

    Of course, Caroline is not as “sunshine” as people say. In fact, she is more annoying when she tries her mindless gimmicks. Nice article!

  2. rothrocks Says:

    Thanks for the comment. Sharapova has time on her side and could still develop her game (doubtful) but right now, yes, I am looking forward to more of Radwanska.

    Caroline Wozniacki has her share of quirks but I appreciate her sideways movement. She can fetch anything that’s hit back to the baseline. If only she took a cue from Radwanska and started moving forward too.

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