When the Williams sisters burst onto the women’s tennis scene in the late 1990s bringing a new brand of power tennis with them, many thought it signalled the end for players that relied on finesse.
Players such as Martina Hingis, a five-time grand slam champion at the top her game at the time, struggled to handle such power and were brought down from the peak of their powers.
Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska has bucked the trend though, proving there is still a place for crafty players at the top of women’s tennis.
Radwanska is the world No. 4 and peaked at a career-high ranking of two after reaching the 2012 Wimbledon final, where she became the first Polish player to reach a Grand Slam final in 73 years.
The lightly-built Radwanska, who tips the scales at 56 kilograms, admitted she had worked hard to develop her own game to compete with her more physically-built opponents.
“I was not born to play powerful tennis,” she said.
“With my body I cannot play with so much power so I had to find a way to beat those kinds of players and play different tennis.”
Her incredible anticipation, deft touch and ability to mix up rallies has drawn comparisons to Hingis, not that Radwanska is complaining.
“I think it is great,” Radwanska said. “Martina was a great player and I watched her when I was growing up. She is one of my idols, so I’m very happy to be compared to her.”
Radwanska lists the drop shot as her favourite weapon.
It is one that has served her well so far this season, helping her win 11 straight matches and scoop titles in Auckland and Sydney in the lead-up to the Australian Open. She is now in the third round of the Australian Open, where she will face Heather Watson today.
“I always try to change it up in rallies, so I like to do a drop shot,” Radwanska said. “I always mix it up. That is my game.”
Radwanska was a talented junior, winning Wimbledon and French Open junior titles.
She burst into the world’s top 100 in 2006 when she was 17 and two years later she finished inside the top 10 for the first time in her career.
The 2012 Olympian has been a permanent fixture in the top 20 since, but found herself under fire from the media and tennis world for not performing as well in the Grand Slams.
After five quarterfinal appearances, including three at Melbourne Park, she finally made her first semifinal at Wimbledon in 2012. She then went one step further by reaching the final, where she pushed Serena Williams to three sets.
Radwanska attributed her long-awaited Grand Slam breakthrough to the improvements she had made to her game in the past year.
“I am more consistent and playing a little more aggressive,” she said.
Now etched in the top tier of women’s tennis, Radwanska believes she belongs there.
“I’m really working hard for that and I have been since I was a kid. It takes a lot of sacrifice and years to get there,” she said.
As for reaching number one, Radwanska does not believe it is out of the equation.
“I’m working on that too, so hopefully one day I can be,” she said.
While her tennis smarts serve her well on court, Radwanska admitted she did little strategising before each match.
“Most of the players I already know or have played against, so I just worry about having a good warm-up then go out and play,” she said.
Radwanska’s ability to control points is a constant source of frustration for her opponents. The 23 year-old also keeps a great check on her emotions on court.
“I always have a lot of things on my mind but I’m usually just trying to stay calm and focus on each point,” she said.
But don’t be fooled by Radwanska’s calm on-court demeanour, she loves taking centre stage and entertaining the crowd.
“It is always great to have support,” she said.
“Sometimes it is hard, like when I played an Australian here in the first round (wildcard Bojana Bobusic) and the crowd was against me. You have to get used to that, but usually the crowd is always pleasant- it makes playing in the stadiums special.”