April 1, 2012

If Not For...

It's a tempting but dangerous game to play in sports. If not for that missed free throw... If not for that deflected pass... If not for that dropped fly ball...

And in a sport as individual as tennis, it becomes even easier to play. If not for her terrible attack, how many Majors would Monica Seles have won? If not for Roger Federer, would Andy Roddick be a Wimbledon champ? And the possibilities don't stop there.

Agnieszka Radwanska has spent the last nine months clawing her way into the sports elite, winning four titles since July. Before coming to Miami she'd marked the third best year on Tour, reaching at least the quarters of every event she played and even taking a trophy in Dubai. The only blemish on her résumé to date? A handful of losses to world #1 Victoria Azarenka. Four of them, actually, most recently a 6-0, 6-2 smackdown in Indian Wells. But when Vika's out of the picture -- this week Marion Bartoli finally ended the Belarusian's twenty-six match win streak in the quarterfinals -- Radwanska's been nearly perfect.

She took that perfection into the championship match Saturday, playing for what would be the biggest title of her career. There she met last year's runner-up Maria Sharapova, three times a finalist in Miami, never a winner. From the start it was the Russian, who held a dominating 7-1 record over her challenger, playing aggressor -- she fired off more powerful groundstrokes, made a bigger dent on Radwanska's serve and kept her opponent running all over the court. But Aggie only allowed two break chances, no conversions, and stayed in every rally, patiently waiting for the former #1 to make an error, and Maria seemed happy to oblige. After a forehand from Sharapova sailed long on match point, the twenty-three year old Pole took over the Miami crown from the woman who's stood in the way of her capturing four others this year.

Of course there's no way to know if Radwanska would have eventually gone on to win the trophies in Sydney, Melbourne, Doha or Indian Wells. But her performance in Miami -- she didn't drop a set to opponents who included former champion Venus Williams and seventh-ranked Bartoli -- shows she can handle the power of most big opponents, even when she plays more of a thinking man's game. It's not that she doesn't know how to deal with Azarenka -- she beat her on the way to a title in Tokyo last fall and has taken sets from her twice this year -- and eventually I feel she'll notch another victory, maybe in the next few months. If it weren't for Vika there may be a few more trophies on her mantle, but something tells me she might be able to turn the tables on her foe from here on out.

Andy Murray has been dealing with a similar story, though perhaps for a slightly longer stretch of his year. He's finished the last four years ranked fourth in the world, briefly peaking at #2, and often taking matches from the sport's best -- he has a more-than-adequate 18-27 record against the three men ahead of him. And he's even notched a few of those wins at the Majors, and a couple in Masters finals. But he still can't seem to break through when it counts.

This afternoon in the Miami championship, Murray might have had the edge over world #1 Novak Djokovic. He'd beat him last month in Dubai, making him the only man to notch two wins over the Serb since he took over the top spot. But the match listed to the side of Djokovic from the start -- he lost five straight games in the first set, winning just half of the points on his second serve. Things stayed a bit closer in the second, with Murray successfully fending off four break chances. But he couldn't make a mark on his opponent's serve and ultimately fell in the tiebreak, with Djokovic converting his first match point.

Murray hasn't been completely unsuccessful against the top guns, of course, but he certainly would have more than a few additional trophies on his mantle if not for the dominance of Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal over the last several years. He'd probably have a Major or two as well, and probably a #1 ranking on the books. He'll probably get that Slam eventually, maybe even this year, but he'll have to figure out how to deal with the big guys first.

There's always a risk in playing hypotheticals -- the fact of the matter is that Azarenka, Djokovic, et al. have been the powerhouses this year and beyond, and up until now there's been nothing anyone can say about it. But if these guys take what they've learned this week, and from their wins in the past, they may be able to shift the tide in their favor the rest of the year. After all, they've already proven they have what it takes -- they just have to get it done.

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