Former Wimbledon finalist Radwanska conjures win to set up second-week meet with old foe Kuznetsova
Agnieszka Radwanska will play Svetlana Kuznetsova in the last 16 at Wimbledon next week
It is not a position that Agnieszka Radwanska has been too used to, a ranking outside the top eight seeds at a Major tournament.
Yet at both Roland Garros and here at Wimbledon, that is precisely where the popular Pole has found herself. She is currently ranked No10 in the world and, a sign of just what a tough season 2017 has proved to be, down at No40 in the Race to Singapore.
For having ended 2016 at No3 and reaching the semi-finals of the WTA Championships, she has faced viral illness and a foot injury, and after making the final in Sydney in January, she has won just six matches in the eight tournaments she played.
Even on her return to grass, the surface that has yielded some of her best results, she lost her opener at Eastbourne. And in truth, she looked vulnerable in her opening matches at Wimbledon this week, for she faced some dangerous unseeded players: Jelena Jankovic and Christina McHale.
Indeed it looked, after an hour of play, as though Radwanska was on her way out of the tournament in the second round for only the second time in 12 appearances here. But she survived two match points, 5-7, 7-6(7), 6-3, to hold her place among the seeds in a top half where she would be the only seeded woman to face another seed.
However if there is any tournament where Radwanska rises like cream to the surface, it is Wimbledon, the only Major where she has made the final. In that same year, 2012, she rose to No2 in the rankings, and has since made the semi-finals twice. She was also a junior champion here in 2005, and made the fourth round in her first main-draw at The Championships in 2006.
And to give some context to the grass career of a woman who is still only 28 years old, she trails only Venus Williams in this year’s draw for matches won on this surface—60 and counting—and trails only 37-year-old Williams in main-draw matches played at Wimbledon—52 and counting. Radwanska, in fact, has not missed any Major since her first, here in 2006, a tally of 45—the third longest active streak on the WTA.
And the slender, nimble Polish woman has, throughout that entire decade on the professional tour, captivated fans with her craft, touch, variety and tactical brilliance. She has said many times that she has no choice but to play smart: She will never beat opponents with power. But her light-footed and agile style has won her the Fans’ Favourite Award every year since 2011, the Fans’ Favourite Shot Award every year since 2013, and the Favourite WTA match and Major match in each of the last two years.
Yet if there is another player who comes close to Radwanska in unconventional, varied and creative shot-making, it was in the shape of her next opponent, Timea Bacsinszky.
The Swiss woman, also 28, almost gave up tennis completely after failing to make a concerted breakthrough in her early career. She got beyond the second round at a Major only once in four years, and then missed much of the next two years with foot and ankle injuries.
A return in 2014 changed her mind about retirement: having started the season at No237, she finished No48, owner of a WTA doubles title and two singles titles on the ITF circuit.
The next year, she made a big breakthrough, a semi run at Roland Garros, followed by the quarters last year, and scored her best run at Wimbledon, to the quarters, in 2015. This year it continued another semi run in Paris.
Now back up to No20, she brought with her to this eagerly anticipated match two wins from two previous encounters—but neither time played on grass.
The first two games set the tone for what would be a close, tense and compelling match. It took almost 12 minutes for the two to battle through their opening service games, via some glorious probing rallies. Radwanska faced three break points before offering up the break, Bacsinszky four, as each chipped short returns, chased down for passes, sliced forehands away for winners, and more.
Radwanska followed with a love hold, but again each then faced break points: This time, Bacsinszky held and consolidated with a love hold for 4-2. The extra power of the Swiss on her drives from the baseline was giving her a slight edge, and a backhand winner down the line won her another break and the set, 6-3.
In the second set, it was Radwanska who got the first break, but not after fighting off four deuces in the second game. She had another battle in the fourth game, too, three deuces but a 3-1 hold. There were more deuces again in the sixth, while Bacsinszky looked the more convincing with a love hold. But after more than an hour and a half, Radwanska held for the set, 6-4.
The racing forward and back, and the lunging and dipping demanded by the slicing and dicing of their rallies seemed to be taking a toll on the Swiss woman, however. She took a medical time out before the final set, emerging with her left thigh strapped.
Sure enough, she was broken in the first game, though not before holding Radwanska off in long, heart-stopping rally for deuce.
In the third game, Bacsinszky smashed long, and still Radwanska plied her demanding trade with short drops. She broke for 5-0 with a confident drive volley, and conceded only one more game, a break by Bacsinszky, in her 2hr 10min victory, 6-1.
She goes on to play an old adversary in two-time Major champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova. Seventeen times they have played each other but only four times has the Pole won, and they have shared the honours at Wimbledon, one apiece.
While Wimbledon has not always been the No7 seed Kuznetsova’s happiest hunting ground—just one win in her last three appearances—this is her 14th time here, and she has certainly enjoyed some resurgent form this season, such as her final run at Indian Wells. She made light work of her first three opponents here, too, beating the last, Polona Hercog, 6-4, 6-0 in just over an hour. Radwanska was only too aware of the challenge the Russian posed:
“We have played so many matches, so many good ones, so many three-setters. Playing her is always very challenging. You know, every ball is going to go to your side over and over again. You’re not gonna have any free points. She’s tough opponent, and also, she can do everything on court. She really playing good tennis on grass.”
Completing this high-quality quarter are two other Major champions: No1 Angelique Kerber and No14 Garbine Muguruza. Both of them are also former finalists at Wimbledon.
Muguruza has looked impressive from the moment she arrived here, and has not dropped a set, or lost more than six games in a match, so far.
Kerber came back from a set down to edge a win against Shelby Rogers, 4-6, 7-2(2), 6-4.
She and Muguruza have split their matches 4-3 in Muguruza’s favour, but the Spaniard has won their last four, including a win on her way to that 2015 final.