Radwanska took down Azarenka with her wit, cunning and craft

Wednesday January 22nd, 2014

Agnieszka Radwanska successfully kept Victoria Azarenka guessing during their quarterfinal match.
Michael Dodge/Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Let today's discussion be about wit. Wit is Mark Twain and Clarence Darrow and Winston Churchill and Dorothy Parker and even Calvin Coolidge. Parker was once invited to a meal with Coolidge, the taciturn president. "I bet my friend that I wouldn't get two words out of you," she said. The man nicknamed Silent Cal looked at Parker, waited and replied, "You. Lose."

We know the sport of tennis can accommodate shrieks and squeaks. As Novak Djokovic proved last night, there is a place for roars. There is Federer's eloquence. There is all that brute force, the equivalent of shouting. But there is a place for wit as well? For players who use their rackets not as firearms but as scalpels. For those who go for rabbit punches and not haymakers? Who find nooks and crannies on the court that other players scarcely know exist? Who traffic not in whistling winners but in ripostes and apercus and other French words?

We got our answer today. There is no wittier player than Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland. She is the John Stewart of contemporary tennis. She lacks the force to shout anyone down; instead, she wins with cunning and craft. Today in the Australian Open quarterfinals, she played an impossibly shrewd match.

Highlights from Azarenka-Radwanska quarterfinal matchup

Radwanska's opponent, Victoria Azarenka, had of course come into the match having won this event two years running. She had beaten Radwanska in 10 of their last 11 matches and won the last 12 sets they had played. Azarenka isn't necessarily a better player. But she is bigger -- by seven inches -- stronger and hits the ball harder. Usually, that's sufficient, but not today.

Radwanska began the match confounding Azarenka with angled shots, defense, variety and anticipation. As someone shrewdly tweeted, "she knows where Azarenka is hitting the ball before Azarenka does." Recognizing that Azarenka struggles at the net, Radwanska deployed her strategy of drawing her opponent in repeatedly. And then either passing her or unfurling topspoin lobs. By 0-5, Azarenka was in Katy Perry mode, roaring and berating herself.

To her credit, Azarenka overcame her exasperation and pummeled away in the second set. It wasn't witty, but it was effective. One had a sense that she didn't just break Radwanska's serve at 5-6, she broke her will. But witty Radwanska was just warming up.

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The reduction ad absurdum came early in the third set when Radwanska worked the court and came to the net only to have Azarenka drill a shot passed her. In one fluid motion, Radwanska caught up to a ball that was behind her and at shoe-level, she shoveled back a crosscourt volley-lob to the opposite corner. "I was just watching," Azarenka lamented afterward. "I was like a spectator a little bit."

After that, the purists -- and there were 15,000 of them stands -- sat back and watched the final 20 minutes of the match, a Radwanska sizzle reel of clever changes of pace, and smart-ass dropshots and volleys so delicate they should have been packed in boxes of plastic peanuts. Azarenka, the top seed, wasn't just losing. She was being humiliated. And she started to cry.

Radwanska won the first five games of the match. And she won the last six games of the match. She concluded her performance. 6-1, 5-7, 6-0 will now play Dominika Cibulkova for a chance at the final.

She left the court to a prolonged standing ovation. The crowd appreciated her craft, her nuance, her resisting the obvious punchline and going for the subtle hook instead. She had won them over, if unwittingly.

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