Agnieszka Radwanska spoke this week of her upbringing in Poland, and how the icy winters were a test of one's passion for tennis. Indoor courts were scarce and often occupied, so there were times when she played and practiced outdoors.
"I remember days when there was ice everywhere," she recalled at the Bank of the West tournament on the Stanford campus. "It's like four degrees out -- maybe nine or ten degrees when we finish (laughter). Wearing jackets, hats, jumpers, everything we had. It was like this for so many years. I can really appreciate that now. I think it helps with your toughness."
Radwanska had just treated the fans at Taube Stadium in Stanford, Calif. to a typically distinctive performance, defeating Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 6-3 Wednesday night. It was her first match of the hard court season, following a semifinal appearance at Wimbledon, and it became evident once again that there's no one on tour quite like her. For her, tennis is the element of surprise over repetition, a taste of the unconventional over grind-it-out baseline tedium.
She's not terribly expansive in post-match interview settings, at least not in the English language, but she offered a look into her youth: being coached primarily by her father at home, as opposed to the customary venture into highly structured tennis academies.
"I had a normal life," she said. "Family, friends, school, studying. The facilities were not so good, but we had many different surfaces: indoor, carpet, synthetic grass, hard courts. It made it easier for me now to adjust. Everything except tennis was like a normal girl; going off to an academy was not for me. All that traveling, it's no life. Even now, I always appreciate being home."
Radwanska said she always had a thirst for "tricky" shots, and she engaged her friends in "games with the touch -- slice, change of pace, mixing it up. I've always enjoyed playing those kind of shots."
Imagine the spectacle, then, of Radwanska facing Schiavone on a soft summer night in Northern California. Together, and without much company, they represent finesse and creativity on the women's tour. Each is a delight to watch in any setting, but this match offered some priceless back-and-forth exchanges: Schiavone, the old-school stylist with her one-handed backhand and textbook volleys, against the 4th-ranked Radwanska, who often appears to invent shots as she goes.
To date, she owns the Shot of the Year in the women's game. It came against Kirsten Flipkens in the quarterfinals of Miami four months ago. As Radwanska prepared to answer a passing shot with a forehand volley, the ball clipped the tape and shot upward. In an astonishing reaction, she spun 180 degrees clockwise and flicked a no-look backhand volley for a clean winner.
"For sure, best shot I ever hit," she said Wednesday night. "Not the kind of thing you can practice."
Serving at 4-2 in the second set against Schiavone, she ended a delicate volley exchange with a similarly stunning backhand, although this time she actually got a look at the ball ("Oh my God -- it was in again," she joked afterward). The fans were delighted, and it was hardly the first time they'd had a look at traditional, all-court tennis.
Schiavone was a pure finisher at the net, particularly with her crushing backhand volleys. She tried drop shots on both wings from everywhere, even behind the baseline, often with success. She floated a "moonball" forehand after retreating in pursuit of a Radwanska lob. As she lined up a backhand groundstroke, one could never be sure if she'd go for the slice -- a rare but still-effective shot -- or unleash the topspin with a dismissive flourish. Schiavone is 33, undoubtedly near the end of elite-caliber status on tour, but she offers pristine glimpses of the player who won the 2010 French Open in such memorable fashion.
Radwanska knows she needs to win a major to attain full credibility, but she has both time and talent -- two formidable assets -- on her side. She's just entering her prime at 24 years old, with an approach well removed from anyone else's. It is based on thought, the notion of transferring strategy from the brain to the racket as the situation dictates, and while that may seem an obvious tactic, it has become a lost art in an age of advanced technology.
Radwanska offered a little bit of everything in this match: gorgeous topspin lobs on the run, feathery drop shots, radically-angled volleys, sliced backhands hit with exaggerated side-spin (favored by Rafael Nadal and Alexandr Dolgopolov, among others, in the men's game), and one of her trademarks: defensive shots from a squatting position behind the baseline. The two players packed more variety into a 10-minute stretch than you'd see from Maria Sharapova during an entire major tournament, and it's a shame the match occurred one night before Tennis Channel's Bank of the West coverage kicked in. This show deserved a national audience.
Schiavone, while disappointed at the finish, smiled broadly as she met Radwanska at the net. "We always have fun when we play," said Radwanska, who drew even at 4-4 in their lifetime matchups. Asked if Schiavone's retirement will leave a void on tour, she said, "Of course. She's a great player, and a great person off the court, as well. For sure she will be missed."
As Radwanska's career steams forward, it's worthwhile to consider the benefits of unconventional training. Tennis academies from the very heart of the sport, a time-tested environment that has produced countless champions over the years. On the flip side, consider Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, the Williams sisters, Martina Navratilova, Novak Djokovic and others who honed their greatness in more private settings. Radwanska, the little girl who braved the cold in jackets and hats, will be a name to remember.