By Andrew Eccles
The votes are in and, for the fourth year in a row, Agnieszka “Aga” Radwanska has been chosen as the WTA Tours’s Fan Favourite.
The people have spoken.
Despite a less than stellar year for the World No. 6, who announced Monday that she would be coached by living legend Martina Navratilova, no other player on the Tour has garnered as much favor or fan fervor as the Pole, oft called “Ninja”. How does this happen, year after year? What is it about her that keeps drawing people back at the close of each season?
I have a theory, and it’s an old classic. But before we get on to that, I first want to look at a couple of obvious suggestions that don’t hold up under scrutiny:
1. She’s just so different from everyone else
There is a certain special something about Radwanska’s game. It’s all timing, talent, and magic touch. As good as she is at winning the Fan Favouite Award, she’s even better at claiming the WTA Hot Shot month after month with her constant technical innovation that never fails to surprise. Some people call Radwanska a thinker, as if her brain is running shot-by-shot algorithms that result in a brilliant close. She manages to build points to place herself in winning positions, impressive considering her relative lack of power. Her most “genius” moments, however, aren’t a result of thought at all. They are the result of a rare tennis instinct, an ability to invent that is unrivaled on the WTA, or indeed the ATP.
She’s an improvisation expert on the court. Tina Fey, with a racquet.
But is uniqueness so unique? Yes, the Williams sisters changed the sport with their speed and ability to attack from anywhere. On the women’s tour, we’re used to kill-or-be-killed forehands, pummeling backhands, and vicious swing volleys, with little room for touch play. Yet, that doesn’t mean Radwanska is the Tour’s only source of variety. Far from it – looking at the Top 10 alone, we have a wide range of playing styles, and various strengths, weaknesses, and temperaments. There are show-women and introverts. There are multiple-slam-winners and those still fighting for a maiden title.
Radwanska’s incredible game is not the only incredible game on display, and it stands to reason that newer styles might have peaks in popularity if difference were the key to winning Fan Favorite. So, while we love Aga for her deep lunging counter-hitting and her blind-volleys, and while these have defined her as a player, I’m not convinced it’s the only factor at play here.
2 – She’s just been consistently entertaining
Has she? Has Radwanska really been a marquee entertainer in 2014?
Her best match of the year was, without question, her quarter-final win over Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open. Tennis fans watched the Pole played tennis that defied her history against Azarenka. It was out-of-body, tennis catharsis. It was also short-lived, losing one match later to underdog Dominika Cibulkova. For a second time in less than a year, Radwanska was forced to watch helplessly as a real slam opportunity slipped through her fingers.
2014 has been about recovery, and it’s been a tough road. A spark was lost somewhere in the limbs of the ever steely-faced Pole. Throughout the year there has been a little less magic, a little less of the momentum she had built in 2013. She’s held on, and she’s good enough to be a Top 8 player even when she’s not at her best, but we certainly haven’t seen vintage Radwanska in a while.
And what about the competition? Haven’t they been entertaining? Take Simona Halep, who entered the Top 5 as a new exciting face, with laser-sharp hitting and an appearance in the French Open final, where she lost to Maria Sharapova in a candidate for the match of the year. Halep was apparently a close second in the Fan Favorite vote, but surely for pure entertainment the diminutive Romanian has provided more quality Box Office in 2014?
Caroline Wozniacki was, too, a key entertainer this year. Her strides came later in the season, surely more memorable going into the vote than Radwanska’s efforts in January. Serena Williams, who clung on to the top spot despite hardship at the slams but claiming victory at the US Open and WTA Finals. Maria Sharapova, who has been hilariously stressful to watch all year. Petra Kvitova, who played like a woman possessed in the Wimbledon final.
All of these women were, arguably, more entertaining that Agnieszka Radwanska in 2014, ninja skills or not.
So, why Aga?
Besides her incredible natural talent – ergo her ability to add drama and fun to any match shep plays – Radwanska maintains a sort of untouchable persona on court. Glum faced, understated, with spider-web point construction that she makes look casual, she paradoxically draws fans in by giving them less than they want for 90% of her time on the court.
And then there are the flashes of genius, the moments where the glum expression disappears…
Watch her the next time she hits an incredible, gravity-defying, impossible shot on the court. It is likely to happen at least once a month in 2015. In those moments, her reaction is almost always the same. She stands still, watching the ball bounce. She glances at her opponent as the crowd starts to scream. She turns slowly away from the court, a smirk grows on her face, and she raises one finger aloft and looks out to the crowd.
Radwanska knows, in those moments, that she has something special to offer the sport. It is in those moments, I believe, where she seals her victory as Fan Favorite. It’s the same logic that makes a Maria Sharapova “check her blood pressure!” or any loss of temper from Roger Federer so enticing – the professional game face momentarily slips, and you’re offered a rare, raw insight.
Remember, Radwanska hasn’t won a Grand Slam yet. Imagine then, if you will, the moment a ball drops in on Championship Point at Wimbledon, a ball that should never have dropped in, and Radwanska’s finger points to the sky with all the hard work having finally paid off on the big stage.
Will it happen? Maybe, maybe not. But boy, would it be an image tennis fans would savor.
No matter how many inventions make fans scream in jubilation, no matter how different she may be from anybody else on tour, the thing that makes Radwanska a true Fan Favorite is the old classic.
She always leaves us wanting just a little bit more.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @BackSwings!