A Sacrificial Lamb Selected for the Executioner?
July 05, 2012 | 10:28 PM
If this post needed a head line for a post-war English tabloid it might read:
Polish Sausage Cuts Bratwurst in Half
Poland's Aggie Radwanska - two days after reaching her first major semis - reached her first her first major final with a convincing 6-3, 6-4 over German Angelique Kerber, playing in her second major semis. It's the first time a Polish player has reached a major singles final (Fibak reached the Oz Open doubles final in '78). Were she to win, she'd become the new world #1. While that moniker is getting passed around faster than a loving cup - whoever wins this final will become the 4th new #1 in 2012 (after the Open a 5th wouldn't be at all surprising) - with parity, everyone wants a share.
But with Serena's second-or-third-or-? coming after Paris a month ago, when Sarah Errani sent her away in the 2nd round in serious need of resurrection, it's seems parity isn't the right word to describe a WTA with her at the top. Serena's top form has taken her a year-long come-back to achieve (last Wimbledon ended with her losing in the round of 16), and she is rightfully joyful to be back after a horrendous two years.
Her opponent today, the former #1 one time removed Vika Azarenka, fought with a visible determination not seen or needed so clearly in a face since Chrissie looked across the net at Martina in one of their many Wimbledon finals. It was just as necessary today as it was in that greatest of all rivalries: if Serena had served as well as she has this fortnight in her previous Wimbledons, she would be playing Saturday to match Martina's 8 titles here instead of playing to equal her sister's five.
How well has Serena served?
A stat discussed on ESPN today during the match indicated that she had won a higher percentage of 1st service points before this match than Sampras had in his Wimbledon title years. The fact that the stats quoted bear no resemblance to any version of the real stats is immaterial to the reality that Serena's serve is, as Vika said, "the one difference that brings her to the higher level." After Serena tightened up in the 2nd set ("looking too far forward," she said), Vika finally earned a couple of break points and put the 2nd set back on serve, and Serena's winning percentage on 1st serve points ended up a mortal 73% for the match after being 94% in the 1st set.
The 24 aces she hit, representing 6 full games of 10 Serena served, were a new Wimbledon record for a women's singles match, never mind a straight set match. With 85 aces in the tournament so far, she will set another record in that stat, not that she's counting. The more important thing is that she's hitting many of them when it matters most, to save her serve or close out a game or a match, as she did today with #24.
When asked about it today, she said she was thinking "Gosh, I've got to get more first serves in." Afterwards she said, "It didn't really feel like I hit 24 aces - I felt like maybe I hit 10." Streaky players do exaggerate their positives and negatives during a match, but while Serena is streaky, that kind of remark afterwards comes off as ingenuine - as have her joyful, jumping and twirling on court celebrations in the past. Today's looked more real because overcoming the injuries and bad losses has her thinking her place is, after all, on a tennis court - something her autobiography last year said she'd never felt.
When Serena takes the court for her 18th major final with a chance to win #14, she'll face a very different opponent in #3 Radwanksa. Aggie's celebration today consisted of a muted smile and several higher jumps than the one that came on the heels of a little jump to see the outcome of the final shot. Given who she'll be facing in the final, it would be hard not to be focusing on it. While her start today showed a few signs of nerves, as when she tried a drop prematurely on break point against her in the 3rd game, she recovered to win 5 straight games and take the 1st set 6-3, and remained focused until the end of the match 45 minutes later.
Aggie's strengths on court are not just mental, though she lacks a definitive weapon. Courtesy of her outstanding anticipation, she moves as gracefully and almost as quickly as another former Wimbledon champion, the athletic Evonne Goolagong. Though her game reminds one more of a modern Chrissie than of the serve-and-volleying Evonne, Aggie is a first rate volleyer with a modern sense of when to come in and the skills to end points quickly from the net.
The big question for Saturday's match-up is, of course, whether Serena will let Aggie make contact with more balls than she did Vika today. If not, it won't matter which great champion Aggie conjures up: all together, they'd be helpless against Serena unless they could give as good as they receive on the serve. The last woman to dominate so thoroughly with a serve was Margaret Court, the all time leader in major titles. Aggie would do well to remember that as little chance as her opponents were sometimes given, like anyone, her spirit could be broken: the 55 year old Bobby Riggs was given no chance in the Battle of the Sexes with Margaret in 1973. He won 6-2, 6-1.
Paddypower is stacking the odds at only 4-1 against her. Aggie will remember she's Polish and play for her people in a way that Andy the Scot could not dream of doing should he reach the final. Serena will be wise to remind herself again not to look too far forward past Radwanska.
Holding serve in her 2nd set today became serious work for Serena after she'd been broken, and her first 23 aces didn't win her the match.
There's a fairly good chance Radwanska can make the final as competitive as the semis were for both players. If she can just last longer than Vika's 92 minutes, it will be huge achievement.
In any event, the proud Pole won't go out like the doctor of philosphy, Mikhail Youzhny, did yesterday, supplicating to the Royal Box to be spared or assisted in what seemed a hopeless task against Federer.
Wimbledon Day 10, 7.5.12