Both women have enjoyed top-five rankings, both have been Wimbledon finalists, both have reached the semis in the first Grand Slam of the year, the Australian Open.
The No4 seed Radwanska said as much after their blockbuster match, played out appropriately enough on Melbourne’s finest show court, the Rod Laver arena.
“Genie for the second round is not an easy match, she’s playing much better and really tough to play, tough challenge today.”
The popular Pole touched on the very reason why their early meeting had come about. After Bouchard burst through the tour and rankings in 2014, making the semis of three back-to-back Majors as she turned from teenager to 20-year-old, she struggled to live up to the soaring expectations in 2015, with 10 first-round losses—until the US Open. There, now ranked 25, she reached the fourth round, only to suffer an off-court accident, and miss the rest of the year recovering from concussion.
Clearly the break was a great decision: She hit the new season with a quarter-final opening in Shenzhen and a final run in Hobart, though this recovery did not come early enough to boost her ranking to a seeded place in Melbourne.
And if there is one woman who can defuse the attacking, first-strike Bouchard game it is Radwanska, who had found her own way back from a relative dip during 2015. From No6 at the start of last year, she was at 14 by the French Open after repeated early losses.
Come the grass season, though, and Radwanska came alive again on the surface where her touch, angle, variety and footwork shine—from Nottingham to Eastbourne and to the semis at Wimbledon.
Her next surge came during her other favourite swing of the year, in Asia: the title in Tokyo and Tianjin and the semis in Beijing prepared her perfectly for capturing her biggest title, the WTA Finals in Singapore.
This slender workaholic took little time off, winning a string of matches in the IPTL, popping home to Poland, and then back to Shenzhen for the title, and what should have been a safe No4 seeding for Australia—except that the No37-ranked Bouchard dropped into her segment.
Little wonder it was the match to catch in Melbourne’s third evening, for there are few women with more devoted fan followings.
Their contrasting games made for compelling tennis right from the off, too. Bouchard took almost every ball from inside the baseline, rushed the net at every opportunity, and went for first-strike winners, while Radwanska sliced and diced, nimbly defending with a drop-shot here, a sliced backhand there, and tactical placement to tease and drain.
Bouchard made the first break-through in the sixth game, pummeling her return of serve at Radwanska’s feet. But in the blink of an eye, the Pole was asking Bouchard questions that she could not answer, and the young Canadian sprayed her aggressive ground-strokes long. Then she double faulted on break point, but was not deterred.
Bouchard twice had break points in the next game, only to hit a couple of wild backhands, and it was 4-4. Radwanska sensed that she was making inroads with her nimble defence-turned-attack, and a precision cross-court pass brought up break point. Another long backhand from Bouchard made the break. The Canadian still attacked, saved three set points, and earned one more break chance, but Radwanska slotted another forehand winner, 6-4.
Bouchard had totted up 23 errors to 15 winners, but while she was fearsome in attacking the Radwanska serve, the reverse was also true: the Canadian made just four points from 11 first serves.
Radwanska quickly broke in the first game of Set 2, after a Bouchard backhand missed the line by 1mm and she then hit a forehand long. If that was not the turning point of the match, then the stand-out rally of the next game surely was.
It exhibited the strengths and skill of both women, first a drop shot, a pick-up, a lob, a full-blooded volley, then both retreating to the baseline before Radwanska pulled off the drop-shot of the match, acutely angled onto the sideline… but it was called out.
The replay showed it to be in: the point would be replayed, and although Radwanska lost it, the steel in her expression at being so cruelly denied said it all. Her serving was pitch-perfect—11 from 14 in the set—and she made just two errors as the eight games unfolded. She undid Bouchard’s net approaches with cross-court passes, pulled off a lunging stop volley on the backhand, and held for 4-2. One more break and Radwanska served it out, 6-2—but not before another out call against the Pole proved to be in.
Bouchard showed why she is such a prospect in the coming years: her attacking, elegant game is a real crowd pleaser. But there’s a reason why Radwanska has been the WTA Fans’ Favourite for the last five years: her tennis intelligence, along with her touch, subtlety and variety, weave a spell. She is not called ‘the professor’ by her colleagues and ‘the magician’ by many others for nothing.
With a smile, she explained it thus: “Of course, that’s my game! I can’t play as strong as my opponents so I find a way to win matches running around, and playing long rallies: that’s the way I am.”
It sounds simple: It is anything but.
Radwanska next plays Monica Puig, ranked 52, who reached the final in Sydney last week via qualifying, and survived a tough second round battle against Kristyna Pliskova, 4-6, 7-6(6), 9-7.
Top seed and defending champion Serena Williams beat Hsieh Su-Wei, 6-1, 6-2, in exactly an hour, making 26 winners and 10 points out of 14 at the net. She next plays Daria Kasatkina.
No5 seed Maria Sharapova beat Aliaksandra Sasnovich with just as much ease, 6-2, 6-1, in 71 minutes, with 22 winners—though 24 errors—and next plays Lauren Davis.
If they reach the quarters, they will face off for a 21st time, with Sharapova attempting to beat her nemesis for the first time since 2004: She has suffered 17 straight losses dating back to the Australian Open in 2015.
A young woman who has only had her Australian passport for a month followed up her victory at the Hopman Cup with Nick Kyrgios a fortnight ago by reaching her first Grand Slam third round, beating the No6 seed Petra Kvitova.
Daria Gavrilova, ranked 39, served for the match at 5-3, only for Kvitova to break back, but the 21-year-old Aussie, to a chorus of support from the home crowd, broke again for the match. Holding back the tears, she said: “It was unreal, I was so nervous at the end. Just really proud.”
Gavrilova’s 6-4, 6-4 victory was her fourth over a top-10 opponent in the past year, and sets up a meeting with No28 seed Kristina Mladenovic.
No10 seed Carla Suárez Navarro beat Greek qualifier Maria Sakkari, 6-7(5), 6-2, 6-2.
No12 seed Belinda Bencic beat Timea Babos, 6-3, 6-3.
No13 seed Roberta Vinci topped Irina Falconi, 6-2, 6-3.
No28 seed Kristina Mladenovic beat American qualifier Nicole Gibbs, 6-1, 7-6(4).
However, the 92-ranked Kateryna Bondarenko beat No23 seed and Sydney champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-1, 7-5.
MORE: The latest football news
MORE: The latest tennis news
BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge