Upsets have an upside Down Under
MELBOURNE, Australia -- There was a moment amongst so many others in Agnieszka Radwanska's wondrously played quarterfinal victory Wednesday over two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka, when she ran down a half volley that fell just over the net and hit a blind crosscourt forehand for a winner.
It would not be the shot that won the match. Or even the shot that won that game, though it did force deuce in the first game of the third set, setting the tone in the final set of Radwanka's eventual 6-1, 5-7, 6-0 victory.
Symbolically, it meant even more.
Asked afterward to explain how she did it, Radwanska said, "I will be 25 in a couple weeks and that means 20 years on court."
What she meant is, this was no one-shot miracle for the highlight reel, no fluke of a victory for a player who came into the match 3-12 against Azarenka and 10-34 combined against the four women above her in the world rankings.
It meant, as her coach, Tomasz Wiktorowski, told ESPN's Pam Shriver afterward, "We have a [saying] in Poland, that nobody beats me seven times. Or eight times. … And then the number changes."
It was the same thought Stanislas Wawrinka conveyed the night before, after beating three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic. The same thought that could have been floating through the psyches of the winners of the preceding five men's and women's quarterfinal matches at this Australian Open, every one of which was won by the lower-ranked player.
Top seed Serena Williams, No. 3 Maria Sharapova and others were vanquished by players such as No. 20 seed Dominika Cibulkova -- who upset Sharapova, then defeated No. 11 Simona Halep 6-3, 6-0 on Wednesday, to set up a semifinal clash with Radwanksa.
Clearly, this tournament is not for the meek as revealed by Halep's admission after her loss that the moment was simply too big for her.
"I couldn't play today," she said. "I had emotions, big emotions, and I couldn't manage this. Before the match I was very nervous and I didn't feel the ball at all. I couldn't move my body and I couldn't play."
No. 14 seed Ana Ivanovic, the one who knocked Williams out of the tournament in the fourth round, also admitted to a letdown Tuesday after losing to No. 30 seed Eugenie Bouchard, a 19-year-old whose homeland of Canada has barely heard of her.
Bouchard, however, was tough, steely, unfazed. Like Cibulkova.
"Of course I'm really glad with the way I played, especially with the way I handled it mentally," said Cibulkova, 24, after reaching her second semi in 27 main draw Grand Slam appearances. "It was a big win against Maria. But I wasn't the favorite in this match again against Halep, you know.
"I walked on the court with the confidence that I can do it again today. I was so focusing what I have to do, to do the right things. That was all what I wanted to do, and of course enjoy my tennis again."
If anything has marked this tournament thus far, it is that. The upsets, yes, but more than just the upsets, the toughness and joy of the winners, a quiet confidence that surely will characterize the eventual champions as well.
"It's hard to play someone I lost [to] so many times before," Radwanska said. "I knew she's [a] great player. Especially here, she's playing amazing tennis. On the other hand, I really have nothing to lose. She was defending the title, not me. I was really trying to play my best tennis, go for every shot I could.
"I'm just very happy because I really was playing great tennis."
Li Na, who will play Thursday's other semifinal against Bouchard, is the favorite on paper, having already won a Grand Slam final (the 2011 French Open) and reached a final here the same year. If only it were that easy.
"I will do everything in my power [to win]," Radwanska said. After Wednesday, that should count as a lot.
It was as if Radwanska -- a fine player, to be sure, the No. 4 seed, a finalist at Wimbledon in 2012 and a semifinalist there last year -- was in a dream-like state Wednesday.
Sure, Azarenka helped her with a shrieking, whopping 47 unforced errors. But Radwanksa did not get dragged into the muck with her. She had only 15 errors total, a crazy three in the third set.
Her first service percentage was OK (63 percent), her first service points won (80 percent) were very good. But it was her defensive tennis, the speed and athleticism that allowed her to get to shots she then flicked off her shoe tops for winners, that won this match.
"A lot of good rallies definitely, amazing points, and running forward, backward, side to side for so many times," Radwanska said. "I was really feeling good on court today. I was feeling I could really do everything, trying and fighting for every point, every ball."
At one point, reporters in the media room were cheering. And on the ESPN telecast, the normally reserved team of Cliff Drysdale and Chris Evert were gushing. It was that special.
"I've never seen such finesse and craftsmanship from a player," Evert said as Radwanska was in the midst of taking a 5-0 lead in the third with still another miraculous rally in which she merely ran down a sure Azarenka winner with a sliding forehand, recovered with a lunging backhand lob, recovered the overhead with another backhand, then raced to the net for a forehand half-volley for a winner. "She's playing the perfect match."
"Man, the arsenal of shots she is using is all-time," Drysdale said.
Azarenka looked angry, though she said she wasn't, but was gracious in her postmatch remarks.
"I can't take away what she's done today," she said of Radwanska. "She played amazing. She really was on top in the longer rallies and way more accurate than me. …
"She was getting to every ball. She guessed so many of my shots. But I felt like at one point I was being too predictable. … But she definitely took advantage of that. She was solid from the baseline. She came in when she needed to. She served well in the important moments. She was just doing everything a little bit better than me. I was just watching. I was like a spectator a little bit."
It was that kind of match. It's that kind of tournament.