Commentary

Flavia Pennetta simply a pro

One year ago, Indian Wells champ wasn't sure more tennis was in her future

Updated: March 17, 2014, 10:53 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Flavia Pennetta is the women's champion at Indian Wells, adding herself to the list of former champions who cannot lift the massive crystal trophy but are ecstatic to have it. After her win, she was sprayed by the bottled water she received from Fabio Fognini, who was in her box for the tournament.

A left knee injury took the starch out of Agnieszka Radwanska. The combination of the injury and the 6-2, 6-1 line score in her first Indian Wells final devastated her afterward. It was an unfortunate beatdown, only adding to the difficulties of Radwanska's curious position as an elite yet terribly underpowered player on the tour.

Three observations on Radwanska-Pennetta:

1. No substitute for solid

[+] EnlargeFlavia Penneta
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesFlavia Pennetta needed just over an hour to win the biggest title of her career.

Flavia Pennetta is a pro, and it is the biggest compliment she can receive. When she beat Sloane Stephens, she was down a break in the second set and 3-0 in the third set. Pennetta served 43 percent for the match on first serve and, like Stephens, was undone by a third-set dust storm. But Pennetta is well acquainted with challenges: The first Italian woman to ever enter the top 10, she fell to 160th in the world after wrist surgery. Facing Stephens, she did the most basic thing an athlete can do better than her opponents: She kept playing.

Against Li Na, the top seed of the tournament and the world No. 2, Pennetta did the same. Pennetta didn't overpower on serve, forehand or backhand. She didn't intimidate anyone with her speed or intangibles. All Pennetta did was remain, play and play, through the injuries and the difficulties of championship tennis, the dust storms and through the higher seeds and bigger reputations. And that's how a 20-seed wound up as the last woman standing, and will now enter the top 15.

"At this tournament last year, I was thinking I could not play anymore," Pennetta said. "After so many years working hard this is the best. Didn't expect it the beginning of the week being in the final, and here I am holding the trophy."

2. The middleweight's dilemma

Agnieszka Radwanska is one of the more stoic players on tour. The most emotion she usually shows on court is a frustrated wave of the racket on a poor shot or choice and a respectful acknowledgement of the crowd in victory. There are no Andrea Petkovic dance routines for her.

After losing to Pennetta, Radwanska could barely talk, with tears and emotion curdling every word.

"I'm sorry I couldn't run as much as I could," she said, adding that "Flavia was playing too great today."

Both sentiments were true, and both were likely the central source of her tears. Regardless of her physical condition, Radwanska was in a difficult spot in the final. After she defeated Li Na to reach the final, Pennetta said the key to her 6-4, 6-1 win over Radwanska in Doha was aggressiveness, going for winners.

Pennetta began to assert herself at 2-2 in the first set, and the Radwanska dilemma of simply not having sufficient power to overcome even a top-20 player like Pennetta came into focus.

When healthy, Pennetta's attacking game would have provided Radwanska with trouble enough. When she needed three visits from the trainer in the second set and couldn't move to her right with any confidence, it was clear she could not win. "I was trying to hit the ball hard and go for the winner," Pennetta said. "In the second, I see her with physical problem and then I think too much and didn't move my legs, but I was happy I finished the match well."

3. Is death by a thousand paper cuts enough?

Early in the match, Pennetta fell into the deathly Radwanska trap, engaging in long rallies from the baseline which Radwanska won. Periodically, she would then fall into the even deadlier Radwanska trap of trading drop shots and slices and touch volleys. There are few players, if any, in the world who will successfully escape this exchange of touch and feel and guile with Radwanska.

But can the waifish Radwanska, who looks frail and even more so with her right shoulder and left knee wrapped in physio tape, win big tournaments on feel? At her core, these types of exchanges are the Radwanska formula for victory. They have catapulted her to third in the world, but Sunday against Pennetta, she was unable to sustain that strategy. The points shortened. Pennetta began taking rally balls and turning them into attacking balls, and for all of Radwanska's court genius, there was no substitute for matching power with power.

Radwanska, who has 13 career titles, is increasingly becoming exposed in bigger moments, on bigger stages. She is going to have to find ways to incorporate more raw power in order to win. Otherwise, she will find herself where she was today: the higher seed playing as an underdog.

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