Magical gambit gives Pole extra relevance in brawny world

Agnieszka Radwanska shows to girls taking up tennis that you do not have to be big and strong to do well on court.
Agnieszka Radwanska shows to girls taking up tennis that you do not have to be big and strong to do well on court.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

On a weekday afternoon, a grim haze outside, a small crowd inside, a slender figure appears on court. Right thigh strapped. Right shoulder and arm taped. A worn virtuoso, a beat-up conjurer. I have come to watch Agnieszka Radwanska not because she plays tennis better than anyone else but because she plays like no one else.

Consider this fact. Every month for most of the year the WTA has a Shot of the Month. A shot of impudent skill, of mad geometry and athletic design. Radwanska won this award thrice in 2014 and then thrice in 2015. In 2013 there was a Shot of the Year. She won that, too.

Yesterday she hit a stretch volley, with the ball almost behind her, which resulted in the ball looping just over the net and spinning back.

Merlin might have blushed. She just shrugged.

Radwanska played the Italian, Flavia Pennetta, yesterday in a match that sparked but refused to catch fire. A bit, one might say, like the Polish player herself. Both were winless in Singapore but it was not only the contest I came for but also the uniqueness of Radwanska. She is, after all, a tennis contrarian.

  • Order of play

  • 1pm

    Kristina Mladenovic (Fra)/ Timea Babos (Hun) v Abigail Spears/Raquel Kops-Jones (USA)

    Not before 3pm

    Petra Kvitova (Cze) v Lucie Safarova (Cze)

    Not before 6.30pm

    Tracy Austin (USA)/ Marion Bartoli (Fra) v Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (Esp)/Martina Navratilova (USA)

    Not before 7.30pm

    Garbine Muguruza (Esp) v Angelique Kerber (Ger)

    Followed by Martina Hingis (Sui)/Sania Mirza (Ind) v Andrea Hlavackova/Lucie Hradecka (Cze)

    FAN ZONE

    OCBC Square, till Sunday, 11am-8pm (Friday: from 10am)

    Player appearances daily from 5pm to 5.30pm.

    PRACTICE SESSIONS

    OCBC Arena, till Friday

    Free for same-day match ticket holders. Children ($2), adults ($4) and family of four ($10)

In an era when tennis can resemble a big-hitting brawl in a ring with no ropes, Radwanska is a tennis Gandhian whose game is based on non-violence and shrewdness. Pennetta herself is hardly a sizeable slugger but even she, according to SAP stats, was just over 6kmh faster on her serve than Radwanska yesterday and nearly 10kmh faster on her backhand.

And if you believe people tell the truth about their weight then the Pole, 56kg, is the lightest woman here. Considering the WTA tour media guide lists Garbine Muguruza at 73kg then boxing analogies about the wrong weight category are appropriate. Either way it means Radwanska must improvise.

Garry Kasparov, the chess genius, once wrote that "we know computers calculate better than we do, so where does success come from? The answer is synthesis, the ability to combine creativity with calculation, art and science".

Radwanska may not play chess - though another Polish Agnieszka, with the surname of Brustman, is a grandmaster - but her style has elements of it. Rich with imagination, alive with variation, she is proof that smartness ensures survival.

The truly interesting athlete is the one who compensates for what he lacks. Michael Chang lacked muscle so he ran. Rahul Dravid, the Indian cricketer, lacked flair but owned patience. Radwanska isn't brutal so she reads the play.

Former player Alicia Molik said "she is in the same category as Martina Hingis". After the match, Pennetta insisted that "she's one of the smarter players in the tour. Maybe she don't have a lot of power like the other one, but the way she see the ball, the way she read everything in the court, it's amazing".

Andy Murray would concur. A few years ago, asked on a BBC chat who his favourite women's player was, he replied: "Probably Agnieszka Radwanska, because she plays a slightly different game, hits lobs, drop shots, moves well."

But Radwanska is not merely a curiosity, she is also vital to sport. She is a reminder that arenas belong not only to the brawny but also to the grinder, the runner, the thinker. Furthermore, as former player Samantha Smith sagely puts it, she is a "role mode for young girls not so big and not so strong".

Girls told to forget tennis, girls told to try something else, girls who can point to Radwanska as proof of possibility: 15 titles, over US$19 million (S$26.4 million) in prize money, thrice a semi-finalist at Grand Slams and once a finalist.

All very nice, except that on this afternoon, even though she starts with a forehand pass that dances cross-court, even though she drop-shots and dinks, she cannot pin down Pennetta. She breaks twice in the first set, but every time Pennetta breaks back.

In the tie-breaker she leads 2-0 but then her forehand hiccups and Pennetta steals it. On this afternoon it is the Italian who is doing Harry Houdini impersonations.

Radwanska likes to wander within the baseline and run a rival around, or as Pennetta excellently described it: "She's going to be like a mess for you." But in the second set Pennetta finds her range, her backhand snakes down the court for winners and her serve whistles. Sometimes Radwanska is so utterly bullied in public it's a wonder she doesn't press charges.

Pennetta wins 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, they meet at the net, kisses are exchanged, Radwanska wanders off. At the press conference she is pensive as if dreaming of being six feet tall and 70kg. It matters to her that she lost and yet this is sport. In Las Vegas a magician stands unmolested and performs. Here she must produce tricks while sprinting and with a rival in her face. So we understand. Some days the doves keep getting stuck in the hat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2015, with the headline 'Magical gambit gives Pole extra relevance in brawny world'. Print Edition | Subscribe