As Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska stepped into the Sinan Erdem Arena at 11pm on Wednesday night, few thought that theirs would become the longest match of the day. Victoria Azarenka had just completed a stunning comeback victory over Angelique Kerber, saving match points to win in 3 hours and 6 minutes; the chances of the next contest going the same way, with as much drama and tension, seemed remote. But that’s exactly what happened, with the clash ticking over into Thursday morning as both players simply refused to be beaten.
Sharapova held a 7-2 winning record over Radwanska coming into the match. The Pole had announced her arrival on the tennis stage with a shock victory at the 2007 US Open, but since then she has managed only one win against her higher-profile rival. That came in the Miami final this year, when Radwanska produced a masterclass in how to take town a more powerful opponent. Her creative, tactical play frustrated and flummoxed Sharapova into misjudging her shots and making errors. Smaller in stature – and celebrity status – she may be, but Radwanska has a superb tennis brain and proves that unleashing a barrage of blitzkrieg groundstrokes is not the only way to be successful on the WTA Tour.
Both players had won their first round robin matches on Tuesday, and victory on Wednesday night would secure a place in the semi-finals of the WTA Championships. Game plans were clear right from the beginning: Sharapova aiming to hit through Radwanska and not give her enough time to construct points, while Radwanska tried to mix up the pace, confounding Sharapova with changes in angle and spin and keeping the ball as low as possible.
Unfortunately for Sharapova, finding the court was proving a challenge as the first set progressed. Radwanksa, who can go for entire sets without making a single mistake, capitalised by playing supreme defensive tennis to extend the rallies and coax Sharapova into going for too much. Although the Russian undoubtedly has the stronger serve, Radwanska has developed means of protecting her own deliveries. She reacts extremely quickly to her opponents’ returns, often retaliating with her signature “squat” shot. This was much in evidence through the first set, and Radwanska didn’t face a single break point. When returning serve in the 12th game, she did an excellent job of keeping the ball deep, neutralising Sharapova’s offence. Another backhand error from the second seed handed the set 7-5 to Radwanska.
Sharapova’s coach, Thomas Hogstedt, came on court to urge his player to take the ball early and dictate points, but she seemed unimpressed by this advice, shaking her head as he spoke and betraying some uncharacteristic negative body language. Nevertheless, Sharapova’s desire is never in question, and she broke the Radwanska serve to take a 1-0 lead at the beginning of the second set. The upswing was short-lived, however, as an extremely poor service game from Sharapova handed back the break immediately. Surprisingly, the Pole was now the more impressive aggressor, hitting an ace and making effective net approaches. As Radwanska broke for 4-2, a second straight victory over Sharapova seemed likely.
Unperturbed by the flurry of unforced errors coming from her racquet, Sharapova walloped three winners in the next game to break back. She then held serve convincingly before another break left her serving for the second set. But just as Sharapova looked to have seized the momentum, a disastrous error-strewn service game gifted Radwanska another break to even the scores at 5-5.
Sharapova was now visibly angry at her own inconsistency, but the French Open champion is at her most dangerous with her back to the wall. Channelling her frustration, she used short-angled groundstrokes to great effect to play Radwanska at her own game, moving the Pole around the court and eventually creating openings. Sharapova broke for a fourth time and finally consolidated with an impressive service hold to take the second set 7-5.
The statistics for the match at this point told a simple story, and it was all about the Russian. Sharapova had hit 48 unforced errors and 48 winners, while Radwanska also had a perfect balance, with 13 of each. The numbers conformed what Sharapova knows to be true of her game: if she can cut down on the mistakes, few players in the world can match her.
The third set went with serve until 2-2, when Sharapova overcame a 15-40 deficit to secure the first break of the set. But once again, the lead evaporated as Radwanska’s scrambling kept her in countless rallies. A series of errors from Sharapova erased her break advantage, and Radwanska moved 4-3 ahead after saving further break points against her in a tense seventh game.
It was now close to 2am in Istanbul, but many enthusiastic supporters remained, cheering the fearsome power of Sharapova and the phenomenal retrieving of Radwanska. Both players held serve until Sharapova carved out a couple of break points at 5-all. She converted the second with a blistering forehand return to give herself a chance to serve for the match at 6-5.
Nothing in this contest could be taken for granted, however, and when Sharapova opened the game with a double fault, it seemed as though there may be one final twist in fortunes. But the Olympic silver medallist had had enough of momentum shifts, and after 3 hours and 12 minutes of gruelling, dramatic tennis, she clinched victory with a slice serve out wide.
Sharapova prides herself on being able to win even when her game is mis-firing, as it was against Radwanska. There were times when she looked defeated, scowling at herself between points and looking beseechingly towards her entourage. But her iron will and focus saw her through yet another tough three-setter. The win guaranteed her a place in the semi-finals on Friday, regardless of the outcome of her next match against Sam Stosur.
Both Sharapova and Radwanska will benefit from a much-needed rest day on Thursday. Radwanska is still favoured over Stosur and Errani to emerge as the second semi-finalist from the White Group, meaning that a rematch against Sharapova in Sunday’s final is possible. If that occurs, fans will hope for a similarly exhausting, exhilarating encounter.