Unsung Heroine of the Year: Agnieszka Radwanska
Highlighted by a Miami title and her first major final at Wimbledon, Radwanska entrenched herself in the crystallizing WTA top four with a season of steady and opportunistic performances.
Towards the end of 2011, Radwanska had hinted that she might have vaulted to the next level in a career alternately fascinating and frustrating. The Pole swept the Asian Premier Five/Premier Mandatory double in Tokyo and Beijing, mirroring world #1 Wozniacki’s feat there a year before. As with the simultaneously surging Tsonga, though, many wondered whether she could sustain the momentum when the sport’s elite contenders returned with full health and motivation. Unlike Tsonga, Radwanska would prove during the early months of 2012 that her breakthrough formed no mirage.
In more ways than one, Radwanska’s first two tournaments set the tone for a first half of unprecedented success with one notable—and justifiable exception. Advancing to the semifinals of Sydney and the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, she succumbed on both occasions to future #1 Azarenka after winning the first set. But she mounted two comebacks of her own during that span, stunning former nemesis Wozniacki and gradually solving the challenge posed by the serve of Mattek-Sands. Not until Rome would Radwanska lose a match to anyone other than Azarenka, in fact, and her Premier Five title in Dubai illustrated the confidence that she had found the previous fall. Winning all three of her finals in the second half of 2011, she would extend that streak to six in the first half of 2012 as she cast behind her the diffidence and doubt that had plagued her on grand stages. That confidence also allowed her to escape a close match against an uncharacteristically inspired opponent (Wozniak) or recover when her game mysteriously disappeared for a set (against Jankovic). To be sure, her increasingly lopsided cascade of losses to Azarenka remained concerning, including a near-double bagel at Indian Wells. Many a heralded champion from Federer to Sharapova has endured the presence of a bête noire whom they could not quite master, however, so the rapidly rising Pole could not fault herself too harshly for failing to conquer the new queen of the WTA.
When Azarenka finally did falter in Miami, the fifth-ranked Radwanska wasted no time in pouncing on the opportunity. Gifted a cozy route to the quarterfinals, she there confronted the challenge of reversing her history of futility against Venus Williams. Although the seven-time major champion has dwindled to a shadow of her former self, she had defeated Kvitova and Ivanovic earlier in the tournament where she often had shone. Dismissing this imposing opponent with ease, Radwanska protected her serve with surprising consistency in a theme that would prove vital when she played Sharapova for the title. In two tense sets, the small counterpuncher held all of her service games as she claimed her most prestigious title to date. Those who doubted her, mostly because of that serve, no longer could argue that she succeeded only in periods like the Asian fall when more powerful contenders did not loom. Rising to the occasion courageously, Radwanska had halted a woman who had throttled her mercilessly for the past four years and who represented her main rival in the contest for second-best behind Azarenka.
Perhaps spurred by that triumph, she recorded a reasonably strong clay season on her least natural surface, including her first clay title in Brussels. Once again felled by Azarenka in semifinals at Stuttgart and Madrid, Radwanska grew no closer to reversing the balance of power in that rivalry, but she did repeat her Miami victory over Venus at Roland Garros before former champion Kuznetsova played her best match since 2010 to upset her. One caveat lingered despite her strides forward of the previous several months, however: her winless record in major quarterfinals, extended by Azarenka in Melbourne. At Wimbledon, a golden opportunity opened for Radwanska to end that drought when she reached her third quarterfinal there without facing anyone in the top 70, which allowed her to conserve energy for a match against Maria Kirilenko in which she was heavily favored. But one can take nothing for granted in this unpredictable era of the WTA, and the Russian underdog came within two points of stunning the Pole in a three-set epic played around several rain delays and on two courts. Saved at a key crossroads by a helpful net cord, Radwanska controlled her nerves just well enough to justify her top-four seed in reaching the semifinals. A routine winner there, she found herself on the verge of repeating Kvitova’s feat from the year before and winning her first major title at Wimbledon in her first major final, also against a former Wimbledon champion. It did not happen, but only a tenacious effort from the greatest female tennis player ever smothered Radwanska in a final much more competitive than most had expected. Seemingly overwhelmed by her surroundings at first, the small counterpuncher from Krakow rebounded from a disastrous first set to turn the tide midway through the second and threaten early in the third before subsiding.
That courageous effort against enormous odds in one of the year’s most important and most watched matches marked the apex of Radwanska’s achievements in 2012. During the second half, her results tapered distinctly as the role of her nemesis shifted from Azarenka to Li Na, who crushed her at both North American Premier Five tournaments and the year’s remaining Premier Mandatory event in Beijing. More unexpected was a loss at the US Open to Roberta Vinci, the type of smart but underpowered player whom Radwanska normally devours. And her finals winning streak at non-majors ended just as surprisingly in a rollercoaster loss to Petrova that ended her Tokyo title defense. Those uncharacteristic setbacks, combined with injury woes, did not deplete Radwanska’s confidence too severely to prevent her best performance to date at the year-end championships. For the first time, she advanced from her group to the semifinal stage, and in the process she played two of the most gripping matches of a tournament replete with them. Just two days after she fell to Sharapova in a match that lasted over three hours, Radwanska delivered her last victory of 2012 in a 209-minute war of attrition against Errani that captured the persistence of both women in a year that saw them rise above their expected potential.
If any of the three women ranked above her falters in 2013, Radwanska will not hesitate to step into their shoes and wear them with poise.
Number to note:
32: the number of consecutive matches that Radwanska won against opponents other than Azarenka (who defeated her six times in that span) to start the year. The streak spanned nine tournaments and over five months, inviting parallels to the Djokovic-Nadal dynamic from 2011. Of Radwanska’s eighteen non-retirement losses this year, fully half came against Azarenka and Li, and all but five came against players who ended the year as major champions.
Upsets of the Year