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Beyond the Baseline

The Toss: Can Agnieszka Radwanska take her game to next level?

Agnieszka Radwanska has only lost three times in 2012 and broke into the top five this week. (Ahymed Jadallah/Reuters)

Last week's Toss took a look at the which of the WTA's top two young guns, Victoria Azarenka or Petra Kvitova, has more promise. SI.com tennis producer C.W. Sesno made a case for Azarenka, but the readers felt that, in the long run, Kvitova's game was more suited to be a permanent fixture atop the WTA.

While Kvitova and Azarenka are often pegged as the likely candidates to lead the WTA's next generation, this week saw a new face in the top five, Agnieszka Radwanska.

Lindsay Gibbs, a contributor at Tennis Grandstand and author of the upcoming novel, Titanic: The Tennis Story joins The Toss for a closer look at whether Radwanska has what it takes to continue her ascent to win a major and/or reach No. 1.

Today's Toss: Does Agnieszka Radwanska have what it takes to bring her game to the next level?

Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me for this week's Toss, Lindsay. As one commenter pointed out earlier this week, I was remiss in overlooking Radwanska when I put together my list of this year's overachievers. It's a fair accusation, I suppose. She's had only three losses this season, all to a streaking Azarenka. After semifinal appearances in Sydney and Doha, a run to the Australian Open quarters and her most recent title in Dubai, she's launched herself into the top five for the first time and continued the form that won her back-to-back titles in Tokyo and Beijing last fall. It's great to see Radwanska actually improve her game over the past year.

That said, I'm not backing her to win a Grand Slam title or become No. 1. She's still the least accomplished of the women in her immediate age group, namely Caroline Wozniacki, Azarenka and Kvitova, all three of whom are still firmly ahead of her in rankings points. She's undersized and underpowered, and while her intelligent game-style can be effective over the course of a full season, it's not enough to win a major.

Before I go on and you blame me for being overly dramatic, I know you have some strong opinions on the issue. I don't want you to lose respect for me so I politely yield the floor.

What do you think, Lindsay? Does Aga have what it takes to get to the top?

Lindsay Gibbs: Hey, Courtney! Thanks so much for having me, especially to talk about one of my favorite WTA topics: the bright future of Agnieszka Radwanska.

Though I've followed Radwanska for years, until last year I never thought she had it in her to get all the way to the top of the game. However, after the transformation she's undergone the past eight months, there's not a doubt in my mind that she will win a Grand Slam and have a shot at the No. 1 ranking. She showed immense courage and grit sending her overbearing father to the bench last summer and has done nothing but improve since. Since August she's made seven semifinals and won four titles, beating players such as Wozniacki and Azarenka along the way.

But it's really the qualities she's shown in transforming from a perennial top 10 player to a top five threat that have made me know she can get to the next level. She's proved that she's smart enough to know her weaknesses and not too stubborn or scared to try to work on them. Though, as you mentioned Courtney, she doesn't have the pedigree of some of the others in her generation, she has the ability to out-wit anyone on the tennis court. Hard-hitters like the Williams sisters, Azarenka and Kvitova will always give her trouble, but she's getting better and better at absorbing and redirecting power.

Given the unpredictability at the top of the women's game, her consistent improvement, and the fact that she's only 23 (in less than a week), there are going to be plenty of opportunities for her to get a Slam.

Nguyen: Sure, she's beaten Wozniacki and Azarenka. But has she beaten this Azarenka? While Radwanska has definitely improved, most of those around her have improved as well. She has a losing record against every woman ahead of her in the rankings and it's not even close. She's 0-3 against Kvitova, has just one win in eight tries against Maria Sharapova (in 2007, no less) and has beaten Azarenka only once since 2009. Overall, she's 6-23 against the top four.

Not to pile on, but Radwanska has a winning record against only four of the top 15 women (Marion Bartoli, Vera Zvonareva, Andrea Petkovic and Jelena Jankovic). Lastly, because we're talking about Slams, I have to mention that she's winless against Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters (combined 0-4).

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In her two most recent titles, in Dubai and Beijing, Radwanska didn't have to beat a top 10 player at either tournament. That's not her fault -- you can only beat whoever is across the net -- but it does take some of the shine off her two biggest titles. But the numbers show that she has yet to prove that she can consistently beat the best players in the game.

Let's remember one thing: Radwanska still hasn't made it past the quarterfinals of a Slam. I think the same criticisms that have been levied against Wozniacki for the past two years apply to Radwanska. She wastes too much energy in the early rounds of majors fighting her way through the draw, she always runs the risk of drawing a hard hitter who can blast her off court, and her serve is a meatball for anyone in the top 10. As Wozniacki and Jankovic have shown, if you can't defend your serve and hold easily, it's virtually impossible to win a Slam these days.

Radwanska's only shot at a Slam is if the draw opens up for her and she has a run like Francesca Schiavone did at Roland Garros in 2010. The draw broke perfectly for Schiavone that year, as Serena, Sharapova, Justine Henin, and Jankovic all fell on the other half of the draw. While Samantha Stosur did the heavy lifting, the Italian cruised, beating Wozniacki in the quarterfinals before benefiting from a retirement from Elena Dementieva in the semis.

Radwanska is going to need the same amount of help from the draw gods to find herself in a position to truly compete for a Slam title. Without one, I just don't see her getting to No. 1. Which leads me to my most controversial statement in this exchange: I think the days of a Slam-less No. 1 are over.

Et tu, Lindsay?

Gibbs: You bring up some great points, Courtney. And stats! I love stats. First of all, I must say I agree with your "end of the Slam-less No. 1" theory. Therefore, I only think that Radwanska will be a contender for the top spot when she wins her Grand Slam title. That's right -- when. Even though the stats are rather stacked against her, I think there's more to Radwanska than meets the numerical eye.

Since 2008 Radwanska has done a great job of beating the players she was supposed to beat -- those ranked outside of the top 10. She was consistent, though admittedly not a threat -- a dependable, and seemingly content, B-plus student. Then she got injured. She scrapped common sense and doctor's orders to play through a stress fracture in her foot in the fall of 2010, and eventually had to sit out for a few months, have surgery and sit idly by as her ranking dropped to No. 14. She struggled to gain any ground when she came back, barely progressing at all from January to June. After a particularly frustrating loss to Sharapova in the fourth round at the French Open, she decided to split ways with her coach -- her father. I know I'm repeating myself, but my point is that we're seeing the dawn of a new Radwanska -- Aggie 2.0, if you will. She's persevered. She's made brave changes. She's grown up. She's lived.

I don't think Aggie 2.0 has peaked -- in fact, I think she's clearly still in development. She's taken a giant step and made herself a top five player and part of the conversation, but she must take things to the next level to get that Grand Slam. She has to get smarter, faster and stronger. Her serve -- though it will never be a weapon -- has to have better placement. She has to become more fit so she can keep up for two weeks. She has to keep her patience throughout matches and never stop fighting. However, she's proved over the last few months that she's capable of immense improvements. Unlike Wozniacki, Radwanska is willing to make the tough adjustments. Therefore we can't use her past statistics as limitations for her future.

Besides, how often (in recent years) have stats accurately predicted a WTA Grand Slam champion? It won't be easy, but if Radwanska continues her trajectory -- which I firmly believe she will -- she'll win a Grand Slam title. Never underestimate the power of a woman scorned.

You decide: Sound off in the comments and vote in the poll to give your take on Radwanska.

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