For more than a decade, Agnieszka Radwanska has tortured many opponents with her variety, impeccable shot selection, exquisite placement and cunning slices.
That one-of-a-kind game – as her coach Tomasz Wiktorowski would describe it – took her to No. 2 in the world, got her into a Wimbledon final, and saw her achieve great success on tour.
But as the 28-year-old Pole attempts to climb back up the rankings following a disappointing 2017 ruined by injuries, Radwanska is forced to face a younger generation of opponents, who hit harder, run faster, and share some of her magical qualities.
That was the case on Monday when 20-year-old Daria Kasatkina defeated Radwanska 7-5, 6-4 in the opening round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
It was Kasatkina’s first match win in Dubai, on her second visit to the tournament while Radwanska is a veteran who won the event in 2012.
“I think she can do everything on court. Very good hands, very good touch. She can mix it up. So obviously I think that what makes her very difficult opponent,” said Radwanska of the young Russian.
You’d think Radwanska was describing herself not Kasatkina.
“Of course, everything changed. Especially I think physically it’s also tougher than it was, especially playing the young ones. Intensity in the game, it’s always bigger. You playing more those longer, good matches. So sometimes, physically and mentally it’s also tough,” added Radwanska.
Kasatkina needed five set points to secure a 7-5 lead over the former Dubai champion then went up a break in the second. Radwanska drew level for 3-all though but then faced a slew of break points in game seven and dropped serve to give Kasatkina the edge once again.
Still Radwanska would not fade and she broke back immediately. Another break followed as Kasatkina put herself in the position to serve for the match at 5-4 and this time, she did not falter, closing out the clash in just under two hours.
Radwanska says she’s finally feeling healthy once again but believes the road back to the top-10 can be a long one – she is currently ranked 31.
“I know it’s going to be difficult. Everything is changing going forward,” she explained.
Kasatkina is now 2-0 against Radwanska, having also defeated her in a close three-setter in Beijing last year.
“I was just ready for this. Everybody knows that Aga is a tricky player. She can play unbelievable winners from any part of the court, doesn’t matter where. So I was kind of ready for that,” explained Kasatkina, who is ranked No. 24 in the world.
“I was just trying to focus only on my shots. If she hits some unbelievable shot, not to put too much attention on this…
“Against these kind of players, you have to be patient, otherwise you can go crazy. You can lose few important points in a row. This is what they’re waiting for. So, yeah, the important part was really mental.”
Kasatkina credits her creative style of play to watching a lot of men’s tennis growing up combined with pure instinct.
She hopes to end the season in the top-15 and believes she’s progressing at a solid rate.
“I feel much better. I feel much stronger than last year. I think that’s normal to feel like this, especially when you’re 20 years old. So, yeah, I feel like I’m really improving.”
Another young talent to advance on Monday is Japanese wildcard Naomi Osaka, who eased past an ailing Kristina Mladenovic 6-2, 6-2 and will face either Anett Kontaveit or Sam Stosur in round two.
“I’m not feeling really well. I’m ill. It started in Doha and I imagine it’s fatigue from playing Melbourne, St. Petersburg, Fed Cup, really good in a row, and then I arrived in Doha, and maybe a strange climate, and maybe a virus there. Definitely I didn’t feel good out there but also I’ve got to give credit to Naomi who served pretty strong and solid and took her chances,” said the French No. 8 seed.
Osaka, who made the fourth round of the Australian Open last month, is making her second appearance in Dubai, and has matched her best result here by making the second round.
“I just tried to stay really positive throughout the whole thing,” said the 20-year-old Osaka of her opener against Mladenovic.
“I know she can be really tricky, so I just didn’t really want to, like, show that I was frustrated because then she probably would have, like, upped her game.”
Other winners on Monday include Russian pair Elena Vesnina (defeated Peng Shuai) and Ekaterina Makarova (ousted Anastasija Sevastova).
A mere 13 months ago, Petra Kvitova was unsure whether she’d be able to play tennis again.
She had surgery in her left playing hand after a home intruder attacked her with a knife causing serious damage to all five of her fingers.
The Czech two-time Wimbledon champion returned to the tour in May at the French Open last year. She won the title in just her second tournament back, on the lawns of Birmingham, and finished 2017 ranked No. 29 in the world.
Her comeback season alone was a remarkable tale of resilience, bravery, and grit.
‘Courage. Belief. Pojd.’ As the Nike t-shirts worn by her team spelt out in Paris last spring.
Fast-forward to today and Kvitova continues to inspire. With her back-to-back titles in St. Petersburg and Doha in the last three weeks, she has produced some stunning stats.
She is currently on a 13-match winning streak that saw her go 6-0 against top-10 opponents. She beat four top-10 players en route to the Doha title last week, battling back from a set down three times, and is now back in the top-10 for the first time since 2016.
The best thing about it all, is that she says she hasn’t even hit ‘Peak Petra’ form yet.
“I think no,” she told WTA Insider when asked about it. “It’s tough to play the best in these conditions that we had in Doha. Overall I found a way to win. I don’t know how but I did. I didn’t go to the volleys as much I probably should, maybe if we’re playing indoors or somewhere else. I think I moved ok. I don’t think I had too many unforced errors in the long matches. The answer is no, for sure. Hopefully, the peak will come one day.”
The most inspiring part of Kvitova’s journey is how strong she’s been in the face of such a traumatic experience. When you hear her speak during press conferences, she doesn’t dwell on the past, she doesn’t feel sorry for herself, she is choosing to counter it all by working hard and pouring her heart into her tennis.
‘Heart’. What she is doing every day in the court is all about heart. And there’s nothing more relatable or admirable than that.
The 27-year-old pulled out of Dubai after her two-title run this month and it is a break she has fully earned. She can rise even further in the rankings over the next three months and who knows… with the world No. 1 ranking up for grabs most weeks on tour, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kvitova is in contention for the top spot by year-end.
Being back on tour, healthy, and playing the game she loves, is obviously what’s driving Kvitova, not rankings and numbers. But it sure would feel good seeing that number one next to her name.
Karolina Pliskova has already checked off some serious items off her tennis bucket list.
She reached a Grand Slam final (US Open 2016), she became world No. 1 (July 2017), she won nine career titles and scored some big victories including triumphs over both Serena and Venus Williams at the same major (also US Open 2016).
Now ranked No. 5 in the world, Pliskova is still searching for a maiden Grand Slam title but the 25-year-old assures she is in no rush and is focusing on improving her game more than anything else.
Pliskova is seeded No. 3 in Dubai, where she was runner-up to Simona Halep in 2015. Before she opens her campaign against either Carla Suarez Navarro or a qualifier, the Czech star sat down with Sport360 at the Jumeirah Creekside hotel in Dubai.
You were ill in Doha, how are you feeling now heading into Dubai?
Much better now, not still 100 per cent but I’m practicing and feeling much better than I did in Doha. I had to skip Fed Cup week so it started already there and I didn’t practice much for the last couple of days so Doha wasn’t really the best for me but I’m getting better every day.
How do you feel about your season so far?
I think it was a solid start, similar to last year. I was defending a lot of points so it was kind of tough to start the season. Also I was sick in the offseason so it was tough just to start in great shape and with great results but overall it was very solid, it could be much worse, but I hope I can improve during the season.
Was it just a regular flu during the offseason?
Two times I got sick but I took antibiotics so it always takes some time to get better.
You’ve been quite consistent over the past couple of seasons and have had some great results, do you feel that one big Grand Slam title is what you’re really waiting for at the moment?
Of course. But I’ve been in big finals already, I’ve been playing big tournaments already for like four, five years so I know how it is to be there, I know how to beat the top players, I don’t want to put any extra pressure on myself. I think it comes with time. I need time to get better in some things so hopefully maybe if not this year, I have next year, I have so many years in front of me so there is no pressure.
Caroline Wozniacki made her first Slam final in 2009. She won one more than eight years later last month at the Australian Open. Do you see that and think the chance is always there to finally get there?
I think some girls, especially with women’s, maybe also with men’s, it comes with the age, so you feel more experienced and maybe what you’re missing when you’re 23 or 22 you find it when you’re 30. I think there are so many women who won a Grand Slam by 30 years old so I think there’s always a chance to get there and win those titles, even a few years later. I know I have a chance and I have a game that doesn’t cost me that much energy so I know I can play a few more years for sure.
What do you think you’ve improved the most over the past 12 months?
I think it’s the consistency, by not losing – okay it’s still happening – but by not losing to really worse players than I am. I always say I can beat the top players I think my game went so much up with all the experience, still practicing, still improving my fitness on the court so there are many things I got better at but for sure there are so many things I can improve.
What was it like when you were young starting out in tennis, you and your twin sister Kristyna?
Both parents were supporting us. They aren’t sports people, my father played ice hockey but not really tennis so nobody from our family played tennis. I think it was much easier to have a sister, and with the same age, that we could do a lot of things together, so it was like more fun, not really like hard practicing. That’s why I think we kept on playing and stuck with tennis and we enjoyed it when we were little.
Were you guys like super-competitive with each other?
We were and we still are. In everything, we just want to be better than the other one.
Was there a point you felt tennis became more of a job than just the sport that you loved growing up?
I think it happens automatically when you come from juniors to women’s, you take it more like a job because you start to play for money, you start to play in front of people paying for tickets to see, so it changes automatically.
I’m still trying not to take it as a work but unfortunately there are days when you don’t want to get up and you don’t want to go on court but you still have to so sometimes it’s work but the tournament the matches I take as a fun, or as a hobby. I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m not always smiling on the court but I just try to enjoy it a little bit more. The tougher part is the practices and the gym and the sweating when you don’t really feel well.
Last year you told me how much easier life on tour is when your boyfriend is travelling with you. Now you’re engaged. Is it nice to have other things to plan and look forward to besides just tennis?
So far it didn’t change that much because we’re still in love, we’ve been together for two years, it’s just about the ring. For sure we are planning the wedding but with the schedule we have we are travelling so much there isn’t much time to really plan it, choose a date, where we want to do it. I want a small wedding, he wants it a little bit bigger so we’re still discussing it. It’s just nice to have somebody on tour, not being alone all the time, especially when you’re losing it’s just not easy to travel, practice and still play. I’m just happy he can be around me.
There are a few mums on tour like Tatjana Maria, Kateryna Bondarenko, Victoria Azarenka and now Serena Williams and Mandy Minella are coming back. Can you imagine yourself competing and travelling the tour as a mother?
Not really for now. I still feel like okay I’m going to be 26 soon but I still feel like I’m pretty young for even having a baby, and then still to have a baby and be back on tour, maybe one day I’ll change my mind but for sure not now. I can’t imagine travelling with a baby and having so many things around happening. Maybe to somebody it’s going to help mentally that they feel better having their baby there but I think it’s not my case for now.