After more than 11 years on tour, Agnieszka Radwanska can be considered a veteran in the sport.
Yet, at 27, she is far from being the oldest player amongst the tennis elite, with seven women in the top-20 aged above her, including the 35-year-old world No1 Serena Williams.
Tennis can be an unforgiving sport and like many other disciplines, your body takes a beating as every season passes by.
Age is no longer a factor when it comes to success in tennis and it’s how one feels that determines how far a player can still go.
“Mentally, I feel much younger. Physically, I feel much older,” Radwanska told reporters ahead of her eight appearance at the Qatar Total Open.
“It’s hard to say, generally just to put everything together, how I feel, what year? I’ve been on the tour 11 years now. It’s quite a long time. Physically, for sure, I’m not feeling so young.”
The Pole, who peaked at No2 in the world and is now ranked No6, had her best grand slam result in 2012, when she reached the Wimbledon final, and continues to search for ways to advance her game and conquer her major dream.
One of those efforts has resulted in her taking a bold decision to change her racquet from Babolat to Srixon this season. For someone who has incredible feel like Radwanska – nicknamed ‘La Profesora’ and ‘Ninja’ for pulling off inconceivable shots from every inch of the court – it was definitely a risk after spending so many years using Babolat.
Her first tournament with the new racquet saw her reach the final in Sydney, where she looked like she was hitting the ball harder than usual, without losing any of her deft touch.
“I’m trying. Of course, it was a tough decision, changing the racquet after so many years playing the same racquet. But, well, I think this is kind of the last year or the last kind of timing that I can change something,” Radwanska explained.
“So, yeah, I was really thinking about this for long time. Around Christmas, I said, ‘Yeah, why not? Let’s change something’.”
Following Sydney, the Krakow-native suffered a shock second round defeat at the Australian Open to surprise eventual semi-finalist Mirjana Lucic-Baroni – a 34-year-old Croat who was ranked 79 entering Melbourne.
It was Radwanska’s earliest Australian Open exit since 2009. But while clearly disappointed, the Pole says she was able to keep that result in perspective.
“Well, as we can see, Mirjana had the best tournament of her life. She played unbelievable tennis till the end of the tournament. It wasn’t only one match,” said Radwanska.
“So, well, it’s always disappointing losing first week of the grand slam. Doesn’t matter who you play. But, well, I think I also was a bit unlucky. That’s kind of a lesson, that those players still can play really good tennis, without any pressure, you know, just hitting the ball as hard as they can. You really have to be careful on those ones, as well.”
Radwanska will be looking to rebound this Middle East swing – a region where she has done well in the past. She has reached the semi-finals in Doha in five of her seven appearances, while she won the Dubai title in 2012.
Seeded No4 in Doha, Radwanska has a bye in the first round and awaits the winner of the clash between ex-world No1 Caroline Wozniacki and last year’s French Open semi-finalist Kiki Bertens.
“Of course, is not easy draw,” confessed Radwanska, who trails her good friend Wozniacki 6-9 head-to-head (Radwanska has won their last two meetings end of 2016).
“We’ll see after that match who’s going to win. Caroline is playing good tennis at the moment. She’s definitely starting to be more confident. Playing really better than before. I guess it’s going to be her. Yes, we played couple times the end of the last year. That was really three good, long matches. So we’ll see.”
With a new coach, and a first qualifying experience since 2004, Jelena Jankovic booked herself a spot in the Qatar Total main draw with a battling 6-1, 6-7 (6), 6-4 win over Tsvetana Pironkova on Monday in Doha.
The former world No1 last played in the qualifying round of a tournament 13 years ago and considering how unfamiliar the situation is for her, she actually did not sign up for Doha and had to receive a wildcard just to play in the preliminaries.
Jankovic, 31, won three qualifying matches to earn a place in the main draw against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova today.
The Serb is down to No50 in the world after suffering a shoulder injury and a health scare last season but has hired a new coach, former world No8 Guillermo Canas of Argentina, and is looking to climb back up the rankings.
“It feels great to qualify. First of all I’m really not used to playing qualifying, now I know how hard it is and what it takes to play,” Jankovic told Sport360 on Monday night.
“You have to win three matches, which is not easy, and all these players they play so well and they fight. I’m glad I was even able to play in the qualifying because I wasn’t in the draw, on the list, so I got a wildcard into the qualifying. I’m thankful even for that, to have that opportunity and luckily I was able to pass those three rounds and here I am in the main draw again.
“I didn’t sign in, I didn’t even know how it works. It’s been since 2004 (since I played qualies) and now it’s 2017, so it’s been many years since I’ve been in this situation. I had a tough last year with a lot of injuries and I need to come back, I need to get my ranking up.”
Canas has previously coached Russia’s Teymuraz Gabashvili and was part of Kei Nishikori’s team. The 39-year-old is new to the women’s game and Jankovic admits his first on-court coaching visits – that are only allowed on the WTA not the ATP – were novel experiences for Canas.
“It’s a new partnership, we just started this week, we’ve just been working for a couple of days before this tournament. It’s a brand new relationship, just new ideas, someone new just to kind of change it up. We’ll see how it goes, so far so good,” said Jankovic.
“I was looking for a coach, he was available, and through my agent, we just thought let’s give it a try, let’s see.
“He’s actually not familiar with that rule (on-court coaching) because in men’s tennis they don’t have that so when I told him we have on court coaching he’s like ‘how does that work, how many times can I get on court?’
“He’s getting used to that rule, it’s kind of cool. But I think it takes time to get used to women’s tennis and our rules and the way we kind of work.”
Jankovic says she has put all her physical problems behind her and is now keen on getting her confidence back. She made the third round at the Australian Open last month but is winless in the three other tournaments she has contested so far in 2017.
She could have sealed her match against Pironkova in straight sets but after climbing from a break down in the second, she squandered two match points to drop the tiebreak. Jankovic recovered in the decider though.
“I’m feeling good but I need to get my game up there and of course my confidence and just being comfortable in the matches, being in those situations all over again, match in, match out, day in, day out, compete and fight and find my way,” said the former US Open runner-up.
“I should’ve been in the locker room an hour earlier but that’s tennis and yes of course I was disappointed when I lost that second set (against Pironkova), I had two match points, it was tough to digest that but I had to forget about what happened and I just tried hang in there. One point at a time, fight hard, and I got myself through that one. It was a tough match…
“The conditions as well here are not so easy, it’s windy, it’s cold, the balls are heavy, especially in the night time. If you play during the day it’s a bit different but at night you’ve got to work.”
The Middle East swing is upon us and main draw action kicked off on Monday night in Doha although rain suspended the match between Anastasija Sevastova and Sam Stosur, who was leading 7-5, 4-3 before the players were ushered off court.
The weather in Doha so far has made us feel that we’re at Wimbledon, not the Arabian Gulf, and the conditions have been wet, windy and relatively cold for this part of the world.
The top four seeds, headlined by world No2 Angelique Kerber, all have byes in the opening round and are meant to start their campaigns tomorrow. But with thunderstorms forecasted today as well, it’s likely players will have to contest two matches in one day for the tournament to end on Saturday as previously scheduled.
Dodgy weather aside, here are the main WTA storylines to look ahead to over the next fortnight in Doha and Dubai.
Will the No1 ranking switch sides again?
Kerber lost her top spot to Serena Williams after the Australian Open but she can return to the summit if she makes the finals in both Doha and Dubai this month. She has unseated Serena once before and has a chance to do it again.
Can Muguruza find consistency?
Garbine Muguruza winning the French Open feels like a lifetime ago. The Spanish world No7 had a promising start to the year, making semis in Brisbane and quarters at the Australian Open, but she was hampered by an adductor problem there. She comes to Doha after suffering a humbling defeat to Karolina Pliskova in Fed Cup. She can possibly avenge that loss here in Qatar with both of them drawn to face-off in the last-eight. Muguruza made quarters last year in Doha and is a former semi-finalist in Dubai. Maybe the Gulf will witness her resurrection.
Is Konta ready for her Middle East debut?
World No10 Johanna Konta has never played in Dubai or Doha. She pulled out of action this week in Qatar after she helped Great Britain beat Croatia to reach the Fed Cup World Group II play-offs. She’s still scheduled for Dubai though and can be buoyed by the British-heavy crowd of the UAE to go deep in the Premier 5 tournament.
Is Kasatkina ready for another upset?
Russian teen Daria Kasatkina shocked Kerber in Sydney last month. The world No32 made her Doha debut last year and can set-up a rematch with Kerber should she beat Irina-Camelia Begu in the first round.