The visceral thrill of seeing — and indeed hearing — a power-hitter is apparent at once. It shocks, it awes. But to watch and listen to Agnieszka Radwanska’s delightfully subversive game is to appreciate a many-splendoured thing.
Playing her first major semifinal, Radwanska put on a master-class in teasing apart an opponent as she defeated Angelique Kerber 6-3, 6-4.
Whether the Polish World No. 3 can do to the fearsome Serena Williams in the final what she did here on Thursday remains to be seen, but why look that far ahead when you can delight in the present?
Under the yellow warmth of a surprisingly strong English sun, Kerber and Radwanska contested a battle that’s rarely seen at the top of the women’s game (unless Radwanska plays, of course): that of the natural ball-striker against the natural tennis player.
The powerfully built Kerber was hitting a vicious ball, particularly from the backhand side, where she leant into the ball to transfer her weight and snapped her forearms, right leading the stroke. When allowed time to get balanced, Kerber was ripping this shot.
But Radwanska was rarely granting the left-handed German the luxury. She realised after being broken in the third game that the Kerber backhand was hurting her; so she started to roll her forehand inside-out, brushing inside the ball with great skill, to the Kerber forehand.
From here began beautifully constructed points, Radwanska varying velocity, angle, direction, and depth to yank Kerber around as if she had her on a tether.
What must have been particualry frustrating for Kerber was that her pace was being used against her. Radwanska hit her now famous squat-shot, where she sinks to her haunches on the baseline and redirects the ball on the rise, borrowing its incoming speed. But even less obviously, the slim 23-year-old was, with her timing, harnessing Kerber’s energy.
Serving for the set at 5-3, Radwanska faced her first real mental test. Kerber cracked two backhand winners to earn an opening at 15-30. Radwanska reverted to her tactic of pinning Kerber to her forehand side and changed direction on a stroke of a sudden: 30-30. Another extended rally followed, Radwanska slowly but surely gaining court position to swing a two-handed backhand volley into the open court. An ace closed the set.
Kerber realised her chance lay in keeping the points short; pursuing first-strike tennis, she started the second set with five successive winners, each crushed as if a bubble-wrap pod. But Radwanska was up to the task of neutralising Kerber; she broke in the fifth game, a great defensive forehand slice contributing its bit to the endeavour.
Although Kerber stayed in it — once even indulging in a moon-ball of her own — Radwanska held firm to ensure she had the match on her racquet at 5-4. She thought she had an ace to begin with, but it was successfully challenged. She lost the point. If there were any doubts as to whether she could handle the occasion, they were dispelled at once. She played a nerveless point at 0-15, another of her intricate rallies, before closing it out.
Kerber’s problem was that she couldn’t make an impression with her serve. That dynamic is certain to change on Saturday, for Serena is cranking out aces by the twenties. Indeed it was the American’s serve that enabled her to get past Victoria Azarenka 6-3, 7-6(6) in the second semifinal.
Serena was loose and relaxed in the first set, and as a consequence, she played with the imperious calm of old and out-muscled Azarenka, stroke for stroke.
But in the second, the Belarusian showed why she was the hottest player in early 2012. She began to dictate rallies, stepping into the court to improve her access to angles.
Serena was simultaneously tightening up: she wanted it badly and she wanted it over quickly. She was up an early break, but Azarenka broke back with practised ruthlessness.
Two things worked for Serena: Azarenka grew nervous herself in the tie-breaker, choking a forehand and a backhand that she would have otherwise made; and while the rest of Serena’s game had gone walkabout, her serve refused to leave her side.
Record number of aces
Of the 24 aces she struck in the match — she broke her record of 23 against Jie Zheng — 16 came in the second set, the last of them on her second match-point.
Rarely has one stroke had such an overwhelming influence. But Serena’s serve sits comfortably with Ivanisevic’s, Sampras’s, and Karlovic's as the greatest of all time.