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Thursday, August 30, 2012
Change is good for Agnieszka Radwanska

By Kate Fagan

NEW YORK -- Two security guards are clearing out a hallway inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, funneling everyone through a far doorway, including Tomasz Wiktorowski, who'd rather not leave his spot.

"But I am waiting for my player," he says, pointing toward the closed door of the women's locker room, behind which world No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland is prepping for her U.S. Open first-round match against unseeded Nina Bratchikova of Russia. The security guards are unsympathetic. They have their marching orders: The Tennis Channel is seconds away from a live shot, and no one is allowed to stay.

Wiktorowski acquiesces. He leaves the hallway, presumably to find a different angle, someplace where maybe he'll be able to sneak in a few words to Radwanska before she walks onto center court. When the match starts, Wiktorowski sits in the first row along the baseline and watches as Radwanska wins in 54 minutes, easily advancing to Thursday's second round, where she will play Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro.

Coach and player are not often far apart. Earlier that same morning, Wiktorowski and Radwanska stood on opposite ends of center court, smacking the ball back and forth in a volley that lasted 47 strokes and ended only when Radwanska executed a nifty drop shot that died as soon as it crossed the net. The beautiful thing was her stroke looked the same as it had all along, until the last possible moment -- the tennis equivalent of baseball's changeup.

Wiktorowski knew this shot signaled the end of the morning session. He met Radwanska at the net and asked whether she was OK. "Ya," she said. And then they executed the special handshake -- palm slap, back-of-the-hand swipe, fist bump -- that Wiktorowski created for them a year ago when he replaced Radwanska's father, Robert, as her full-time coach. (More on that little bit of drama later.) Radwanska took a sip of water and walked off the court while her sister Urszula, currently No. 82 in the world, took her place.

The coach has a different handshake with Urszula. Actually, it's not a handshake at all; it's more of a shadow-boxing gesture, fists raised, ready for the fight. "Aggie is sensitive, and Ula is more of a fighter," Wiktorowski says. "So I do different things with each of them."

The Sisters Radwanska are the second-most successful sister pairing on the WTA tour, but that distinction means little when the top spot belongs to Venus and Serena Williams, who have won a combined 21 Grand Slam titles. Considering those numbers, it's easy to understand why Aggie, who is 23 and still looking for her first major championship, and Ula, who is 21 and lost her first-round match Tuesday, fly below the radar -- relatively speaking, of course.

This is not the case in Poland, especially not in Krakow, where the Radwanskas live and spend their short offseason. The sisters are a big deal there because they've stayed loyal to their country. They were introduced to the game at a young age by their father, who played during a time when communism made things difficult for athletes hoping to compete abroad. Robert moved the family to Germany for a few years so he could earn a living as a club pro -- which means Aggie and Ula could easily be playing under a different flag. They could train somewhere other than Krakow, a city devoid of even one hard court. No one would blame them if they moved to a place with professional-level facilities.

"It was pretty tough," Aggie says. "When people are coming to Krakow and we show them how and where we practice, they are like, 'Seriously? Are you kidding me?' But we're always saying that what matters about the courts -- the lines, the nets -- are the same. I'm practicing in Poland even when I don't have good facilities. If somebody knows me, they know for sure I'm from Poland because I'm playing for my country every tournament, every match. I'm staying in my hometown and my home country because that is where I feel comfortable. I feel good there."

Adds Ula: "We don't have many courts in Krakow, but at least we have each other. So I don't have to call for a hitting partner because I have Agnieszka. And we also have our dad."

The sisters still work with their father in the offseason, but he has not traveled with them since Aggie made the decision last July to separate church and state, ending her 18-year coach-player relationship with Robert, partly in order to save their father-daughter bond. She immediately hired Wiktorowski, who had served as captain of Poland's Fed Cup team and consulted for years with Robert and Aggie. The move seems to be the right one: Aggie won the Sony Ericsson Open in March, then advanced to the Wimbledon final in July.

Robert is still involved from afar. After Radwanska's first-round win Tuesday, Wiktorowski said he would hop on Skype that night to talk strategy with Robert. "It is not that I have changed everything," the coach says. "It is only that when you train someone for 18 years, you begin to develop a certain way of doing things. I didn't want to make a revolution when I took over. The idea was new blood. Only one thing is truly different: I am not her father. They had some fights, and everything was not perfect. That is why I am here."

When Aggie announced the coaching change, Robert made the unfortunate decision to pop off to the Polish media. For her part, Aggie has stayed above the fray, saying only that her decision was "about changing something, and I think it's working good so far."

Yes, it is. She has the No. 2 ranking. She has advanced to a Grand Slam final. She has won a high-profile WTA event. She has earned more than $10 million in prize money during her career. And she has the look of someone who will hang around the top for a while, thanks to an innate sense of the court's geometry and a collection of fundamentally sound shots.

Of course, now she needs to win a major. "I was really close a few weeks ago," Radwanska says, noting her three-set Wimbledon loss to Serena Williams. "Even when I lost that final, I knew it was something I was working for all of my life."

And that, right there, may be the key to clearing the last hurdle in her path. Wiktorowski has noticed a pattern each time Radwanska reaches a goal. "She has had the best half-year of her life," he says. "But after these big successes, whether it's winning a tournament or getting to the final of Wimbledon, I see crashes. And I can see why. She has made an amazing goal. So she made the final at Wimbledon, and now she needs her time to find her rhythm again.

"Her practices have gotten better and better, and now she needs to transfer it to the match court. She needs to build her confidence that this is possible."

After Radwanska's win Tuesday, Wiktorowski waited for her outside the women's locker room. He knows the difference between her winning and losing a Slam has little to do with X's and O's. She has the ability, but what she needs now is the belief she's ready for this next step -- more of a leap, really. Part of his job is to deliver her this confidence.

Radwanska approaches, her face red from the harsh late-summer sun. The two speak in Polish for a minute, and Wiktorowski pats her encouragingly on the back. Just as she turns to go, he says something to her that sounds, by the lilt of it, like the Polish equivalent of "Way to go."

He lifts his palm into the air. As the two exchange a high-five, Radwanska smiles.

She is still alive in the quest for her first major.