‘Most Valuable’ Agnieszka Radwanska aiming for the big one for 2016

Agnieszka Radwanska may not have the height and power of many of her rivals - but that won't stop the pursuit of her dream

Agnieszka Radwanska has, it seems, found it hard to put a foot wrong in the last few months.

Her victory in Tokyo was the first in what would become three titles by the end of the year in arguably the best annual haul of her career. For she followed that Premier title with a semi run at the prestigious Beijing event, then claimed the Tianjin title, and went on to win the WTA Championships, the biggest tournament of the year outside the Grand Slams.

That she started this run ranked No13, and so only qualified for Singapore in the final weeks, made her achievement all the more impressive. Certainly at the mid-point of the year, Radwanska’s form and confidence seemed to be at a lower ebb than in many a season.

She is still only 26, and her consistency at the top of the game since she turned pro 10 years ago has been almost a given. She broke the top 10 in 2008 when she also qualified for her first end-of-year final, and only in 2010 has she failed to qualify since.

This is my style, I always run a lot. I’m never going to serve like Serena or any of the other girls

Agnieszka Radwanska

She hit a career-high of No2 in 2012 with a stunning run to the Wimbledon final—taking the mighty Serena Williams to three compelling sets—and has not ended a year outside the top five since. But in 2015, it looked as though she might.

After a fourth-round loss at the Australian Open, she won only 10 matches in eight tournaments, losing her opener at Roland Garros. But just as in 2012, it was the grass that produced her best: the semis in Nottingham, the final of Eastbourne, and the semis at Wimbledon—her third time at the All England Club.

The US Open swing proved tough, with match-wins again hard to come by—but then came the Asian swing, and she has not looked back.

After winning her biggest title—in a thriller of a final against Petra Kvitova—she told the WTA that the grass was a turning point: “Everything changed from the grass court season. I started feeling much better about my game. I was becoming more confident on the court, I won a few tight matches and it really helped me a lot. I started making good decisions and hitting the right shots at the important moments again.”

It was in that cracking final where she played the shot that would win her the WTA’s Shot of the Year—the third time in a row. For the artistry and court craft of the popular Pole have captured the imagination ever since she brought her slender frame and intelligent tactics to the court. In this case, it was the most deft of angled drop-shots—one of her signature plays—that illustrated the reason she has picked up nicknames such as La Profesora, Ninja, and Magician among colleagues and fans.

But asked about her nimble, all-court tennis by Pat Cash for CNN Open Court, she was under no illusions.

“This is my style, I always run a lot. I’m never going to serve like Serena or any of the other girls—I just need to run.”

That is to underplay the variety of shots that she can put together: the flat and looping drives that leave her racket wrapped round her back or swirling above her head; the angles off both wings; her defence from the baseline from a deep crouch—and her touch at the net.

It’s an irresistible package for lovers of tennis. Andy Murray, when asked this week about his favourite female player to watch, picked Radwanska: “She doesn’t play like anyone else and it’s always entertaining.”

Murray was talking in Dubai at the end of a three-day residency of the International Premier Tennis League before it heads to Singapore for its fifth and final stop. Radwanska, like many other top players, opted into the team event that #BreaksTheCode as a valuable component during their training for the new season in Australia in the New Year.

In her debut for the Indian Slammers, she played just two legs, in New Delhi and Dubai, but quickly asserted herself as the Most Valuable Player in the event: six singles sets, six victories.

Radwanska has, she said, enjoyed every minute: “After a whole year of playing very serious, this is a lot of fun. It’s nice to be in one team. It’s different… you have to get used to the changes of rules: It’s hard. Everything is going so fast, and you are rushing. Of course playing two players in one set is also different [alluding to the permitted ‘subbing’ of one player for another in each set]!

It has given her a chance, too, to get to know some of the ATP players. Roger Federer, she tweeted, is a “funny guy”. She couldn’t wait “to see Rafa’s match against Roger”. And she was bowled over by the tennis of 43-year-old Fabrice Santoro. Not surprising perhaps: He was not just her team captain but, in his day, also nicknamed ‘the magician’ for the variety in his game and his deft shot-making.

While the IPTL tour continues, Radwanska’s journey with it is now done, but her plans, preparations and hopes have been buoyed up for the year ahead by her end-of-season success and No5 ranking.

And much as the WTA Championships meant to her, she wants a yet bigger prize: the singular kudos that comes with a Grand Slam victory. She admitted:
“Definitely Singapore gave me confidence that I can win the big thing. I definitely hope that win is going to help me go deeper in the Majors, and I will do everything in my power to win a Grand Slam next year.”

First, she will try to make amends in Australia for her early exit last year: She had not fallen before the quarters there since 2010 and reached the semis in 2014. But her most successful Major remains Wimbledon: Two quarters, two semis and a final already.

With a game like Radwanska’s, it does, of course, make complete sense: grass is where slice and touch and angle pay off in spades, and where nimble feet and flexible defence against a low-bouncing ball are valuable tools.

And while Radwanska may not have the height and power of many of her fellow players, that won’t stop her running—and running some more—in pursuit of her dream.

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