INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- In the fairly recent past, Agnieszka Radwanska's mission was clear and defined: Find a way to beat the big players. Like David Ferrer on the men's side in comparison to the Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer-Novak Djokovic-Andy Murray nexus, Radwanska was the next-highest ranked player in the world but never a full member of the Serena Williams-Maria Sharapova-Victoria Azarenka club.
In a land of heavyweights, Radwanska is a middleweight, with a magical array of drop shots, slice shots, squash shots, no-look volleys, impossible gets on defense, genius feel and magnificent touch. But that's insufficient compensation for what has always been a fatal lack of raw power against the top layer of the game.
Belonging to the middleweight class didn't just mean being unable to slug with the ladies' big three, it also meant constantly being squeezed and threatened by the rising stars who want a piece of what she has. That is why her routine 6-3, 6-4 victory over one of those stars, Romania's Simona Halep, in Friday's women's semifinal may seem sweeter than it might normally appear when a higher seed simply handles business.
Radwanska, the No. 2 seed, will play Flavia Pennetta, the No. 20, in Sunday's final. Pennetta upset top-seeded Li Na 7-6, 6-3 in an aggressive semifinal fight that saw Li broken four times in the first set to go along with eight double faults, the last coming on set point in the tiebreaker. Li double-faulted nine times and made 52 unforced errors to Pennetta's 22.
Radwanska will play for a title because she took Halep, a player who had beaten her in their previous two meetings and who has more power, and played the classic Radwanska game of breaking her opponent's resolve by chasing down balls that had no business remaining in play. Radwanska was more accurate and steadier, but mostly she created opportunities with a fantastic court sense that exposed Halep.
"I have to be really aggressive," Pennetta said about facing Radwanska. "I have to go for a winner but not rush too much because she's a wall. I mean, I have to make seven times the winner against her, but I played really good against her in Dubai, so I hope to play the same way."
When Radwanska wobbled, as she did after leading 4-0 in the first set when she dropped a few games with unnecessary craftiness -- including ill-advised drop shots that allowed Halep to establish her power -- she restored herself and her control of the match.
"Yes. Well, I think we were both really good runners. I think we both like to run," Radwanska said. "Especially it's really hard to play against the wind and trying to just finish the ball playing against the wind. I think that's why a couple rallies were pretty long. Pretty much all the games, doesn't matter who was serving, it was really tight games. I think I was better just a few points each set."
Radwanska and Pennetta met in the second round in Dubai last month, where Pennetta won easily 6-4, 6-1. Sunday's final will be a battle between the resurgent Pennetta, who's enjoying a tennis renaissance after nearly quitting the sport last year because of injuries, then making a spirited, surprise run to the US Open semifinals, and the driven Radwanska, who has the highlight reels and the world No. 3 ranking and the respect as a wonderfully gifted craftswoman -- but not yet the golden ticket. Sunday is another chance for Radwanska to win a big title -- a chance that comes without having to face a powerhouse -- and to prove also that she deserves a legitimate seat at the table instead of being in the Caroline Wozniacki territory of being the highest-ranked player without signature big-match wins and Grand Slam titles.
Williams, Azarenka and Sharapova all have at least two Grand Slam titles. Li Na, against whom Radwanska has had better success (5-6 lifetime), has two Grand Slam titles and is ranked No. 2 in the world. Radwanska has been to only one Slam final, her encouraging but unsuccessful three-set loss to Williams in the 2012 Wimbledon final. Radwanska's record against the big three is a combined 6-29. Middleweights just don't make a habit of beating heavyweights.
Thus, the challenge was clear -- until it wasn't, because for the past year, Radwanska has been mired in another less-charitable narrative of not being able to close the deal even when the big kids have left the room.
Take last year's Wimbledon for example: Azarenka beat Maria Joao Koehler, but the Belarussian slipped and wrecked her right knee and withdrew from the tournament. Williams was upset by Sabine Lisicki, and Sharapova lost in the second round to Maria Larcher de Brito.
The door swung wide open, only Radwanska didn't even reach the final, getting bounced in the semis by Lisicki, the famous frozen handshake at the net to follow. Radwanska knew that, to date, her best chance to win a major had dissolved.
Add to that this year's Australian Open two months ago, when Sharapova lost in the fourth round to Dominika Cibulkova; Williams, hurt again, lost to Ana Ivanovic; and in a night of pure wizardry, Radwanska slayed her nemesis, Azarenka, in the quarterfinals, putting on one of the great shot-making clinics in recent years that included a 6-0 third-set bagel.
With the three-headed tormentor erased, the path to her first Grand Slam title was clear, yet Radwanska again didn't reach the final in Melbourne, dismantled in a 6-1, 6-2 shocker by Cibulkova in the semifinals.
So, the problem for Radwanska isn't just navigating the specter of Serena & Co., it's establishing herself as the alpha when she's the highest-ranking woman left standing, as she is now for Sunday's final. She has to find a way to avoid upsets. Meanwhile, Pennetta is a 32-year-old seemingly enjoying every minute of the raw competition. She beat Li and Sloane Stephens by simple perseverance, by being tougher than her higher-ranked opponents when it mattered. Pennetta's goal in choosing to continue playing last year was to make the top 100, and she finished 29th and played in a major semifinal and is now in the final of a premier event. She's now ranked 21st in the world and will enter the top 20 next week.
"I'm surprised also," she said, "because I didn't think in the middle of the week if you ask me, 'What do you think? You gonna make a final here?' I would say, 'Mmmm, I don't think so.' But my tennis is good. I'm happy with the way I play. I fight and try my best. Of course, I'm happy."