The Joys of Agnieszka Radwanska and Voodoo Tennis

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

Yesterday, Stanislas Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic reminded us, once again, why we watch the game. It was a lesson that we’d been given for the 15,000th and 15,0001st times by Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova earlier this week, but with Wawrinka and Djokovic it seemed a bit different due to their history.

That is, Wawrinka’s career was effectively reborn last year on these blue courts of Melbourne when he pushed Djokovic to the brink in their aptly-considered epic encounter, but he ended up still predictably losing the match to the No. 1. Then the two played three more times in 2013, and despite the hype for each one of them, Djokovic came away on top each time.

But Wawrinka dug down deep and pulled off the upset, and it was one of those moments that made me feel stupid for becoming this jaded, eye-rolling sports fan. When had this happened to me? When did I start to invest more energy into self preservation and managing my expectations than I did into the beauty of believing in the underdog? I mean, the most fun thing about sports is that nothing (other than Fernando Verdasco DFing in inappropriate places) is a given.

And so, I tried my best to let myself go into this Radwanska-Azarenka match as if it were a blank slate. As I’ve written about before, Radwanska is one of the few players left on either tour that I’m a fan of in the traditional sense. But I also admire Azarenka and the way she has developed herself into a Champion and how she holds her head high despite all of the criticism she (often unfairly) receives. I want her to win more majors, to carry women’s tennis. With Serena out, this was a good chance for her to continue to boost her profile.

Still. I didn’t want to manage my expectations. Despite the lopsided head-to-head (Azarenka was 12-3 over Radwanska heading into this match, including the last seven matches and 12 sets in a row), I refused to see the match as a foregone conclusion. I tried to actually have that hope that I so often run from these days. Because, you know, why not?

The last time Radwanska won a set over Azarenka was actually here in Melbourne, two years ago, in their quarterfinal match. Things were, to put it mildly, a little bit different back then. In what was a tennis lifetime ago, Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki were at the top of the rankings. Azarenka, at No. 3, was still seen as a fragile player who wasn’t going to live up to the hype. Serena was the favorite as always, but still hadn’t won a major since her comeback from her foot surgery/pulmonary embolism, so there were question marks. Sharapova’s long and slow comeback was only just beginning to take shape, Sam Stosur was coming off of her U.S. Open win, Kim Clijsters was still hanging around trying to grab another slam too.

Azarenka was a favorite headed into that quarterfinal match, but, if I remember correctly, not by a wide margin. Radwanska had finished 2011 on a great run, even beating Vika in Tokyo that fall. Now, it was supposed to finally be time for Radwanska to make a major semifinal, something she’d failed to do in her career to that time. On that day, the Pole took the nervy first set, 7-6 (0), but then, seemingly out of nowhere, Azarenka delivered a second-set bagel, and ended up steamrolling her way to the semifinals. That bagel changed the course of Azarenka and Radwanska’s careers, and clearly make the Belarusian the alpha in their rivalry.

But still, thanks to Stan, I believed.

As anyone who watched Radwanska a lot will tell you, there’s this zone she reaches where she is untouchable. In the Aga Zone, she can anticipate anything. She literally scampers around the court like a deer, guessing exactly where her opponent is going to hit the ball next and arriving there in time to place the ball exactly where she wants to on the opposite side of the court with the flick of her magical wrist. She stealthily creeps her game into the nooks and crannies of her opponents’. She makes their power her weapon, their weaknesses her strengths, their questions her answers.

It’s voodoo tennis, the way she maps out the court and makes it her playground while her opponent just stands helpless on the other side of the court. There’s nothing you can do, once Aga puts a spell on you.

Of course, the Zone isn’t always available, and when it is, it often just comes against players such as Flipkens and Muguruza. Radwanska scraps her way out of many a mediocre day against lesser opponents, and often comes out onto the court against players such as Azarenka and Serena with lead in her feet, overwhelmed by the force of their games before the first point is even played. In those cases, there’s simply not enough voodoo in the world.

But today was different. Today, from the very first point, I knew that my belief wasn’t unfounded. I saw signs of the Aga Zone right away. She had a spring in her step. Despite not having the firepower of the two-time defending Champion, she was the one in command from the start, waving her racket around like a magic wand. She stayed patient, outlasting the occasional error from herself and the streaks of brilliant play by her opponent.She made her side of the court look like a trampoline, while Azarenka often looked like she was wading in quicksand. She kept moving the ball around the court as if by mind control, and slowly but surely edging her way into her Azarenka’s mind. The calmer Radwanska was, the more aggravated Azarenka became.

Of course, it helped that Azarenka just could not find the depth on her forehand like she usually could–hey, every magician needs an assistant–but for the most part, Azarenka was, as she admitted in press, often relegated to the role of a mere “spectator” on the court.

Radwanska was in awe of her own performance too–there’s not really any way to be modest about the Aga Zone.

Yes, well, a lot of good rallies definitely, amazing points, and running forward, backwards, side to side for so many times.

Well, I was really feeling good on court today. I think, you know, I was feeling I could really do everything, trying and fighting for every point, every ball.

You know, finally semifinal (smiling).

While many had written her off well before the match had ever began, Radwanska never lost faith that she could take out her rival, that she could have an Aga Zone day against Vika. Like others before us in this tournament, Wawrinka in particular, she reminded why we need to approach matches with open minds, not closed-off hearts.

There are few things as satisfying as a fan as seeing your favorite player have a day where everything they touch turns to gold. But there’s always something else to worry about. Radwanska essentially let a Wimbledon title fall through her fingers last summer, and, in my opinion, she spent the rest of the year recovering from that heartbreak. And now here she is again, in the semifinals without Serena, Sharapova, or Azarenka to stand in her way. It’s a phenomenal opportunity, and that certainly won’t be lost on Radwanska.

What hopefully will account for the difference this time is that she was the one who paved her own way this time by taking out Azarenka. She’s not just the beneficiary of an open draw, she’s the bulldozer who cleared it. Still, she’s lost to Cibulkova, her semifinal opponent, before, and Li Na–her likely opponent in the final–beat her here last year in the quarterfinals. Nothing at all is guaranteed.

All we know right now is that Radwanska is into her third career semifinal at a major, and she’s looking to make it to her second final and win her first Grand Slam title. The pressure gets more intense, the spotlight gets brighter, and the stakes get way, way higher with every passing game she plays from here on out.

But today, she showed the world what she was capable of. Today, she showed once again why “Radwanska” has become a verb in tennis circles, one used for men and women. She showed that there’s more than one way to dominate a tennis match, and proved that narratives can be turned on their axis with the whisk of a wrist. She seized the day. She stole the show. She solidified herself as a contender for this major.

Most importantly, with shot after shot like the one below, she dazzled us all and reminded us why we should just tune in, shut up, and enjoy the show.

Lindsay is an author, a filmmaker, a long-winded blogger, and a huge tennis fan.

4 Responses

  1. Master Ace
    Master Ace January 22, 2014 at 10:21 am |

    All you need to see in this match is when Azarenka served at 0-4 in decider to see Radwanska’s magic(voodoo) at work.

  2. Patrick of La Verne
    Patrick of La Verne January 22, 2014 at 5:49 pm |

    Wonderful column, Lindsay.

    Your affection for certain players, or perhaps I should say the games of certain players, infuses many of your articles with an esprit that one rarely finds in sports journalism.

    It was such a strange match. Time and again, Aga had an opening and I expected her to hit a winner through a half-open court. And time and again, she didn’t get enough on the ground stroke to hit it past Azarenka’s always tough side-to-side defense. So much so that I thought her right shoulder, which seemingly has been taped up since she was nine years old. was really bothering her. That had to be tremendously deflating.

    And yet, unlike so many other matches where the inequity of power between Aga and the big guns had proved decisive and defeating, this time Agnieskza kept the faith and kept posing problems for the mighty Azarenka.

    And here I thought that voodoo tennis had fallen into desuetude since Camille ‘Pin’ came up just short against Sharapova at the 2007 AO.

  3. Kristy
    Kristy January 22, 2014 at 10:06 pm |

    I agree with Patrick — this is a wonderful column. You really capture the uncanny, unpredictable power of Radwanska — “voodoo” is a good way to put it. Your descriptions are so deft and accurate. (Dare I say Radwanska-like?) I’m in awe.

  4. lukeS
    lukeS January 26, 2014 at 7:27 pm |

    Great article. I love videos You put between the lines, makes it much more interesting and exciting to go through. I just wonder, if someone measured fans noise level after a great play, who would win that contest in AO this year. Stadium reactions are impressive 🙂

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