As Agnieszka Radwanska’s coach Tomasz Wiktorowski put it, starting the year ranked 28 in the world will be an “unusual” situation for the Polish perennial top-tenner.
Injuries and illness have hampered Radwanska in 2017, with foot problems bothering her since May and a virus disrupting her Asian swing.
The result was a forgettable season which saw her compile a 25-18 win-loss record, and drop from No. 3 in the world to just inside the top-30.
It’s the first time since 2010 Radwanska has ended the year outside the top-eight.
“Definitely a very difficult year. I’ve been struggling with a couple of injuries, a couple of viruses as well on the way. It was really hard being without preparation before every Grand Slam pretty much,” Radwanska told Sport360 during her preseason training stint in Dubai last week.
“I was just praying that this year would be over and I’m just going to start from the beginning next year. We’ll see how it goes but for sure I don’t think it can be worse than this year.”
After making at least one Grand Slam semi-final in each of five consecutive seasons from 2012 to 2016, Radwanska couldn’t make it past the fourth round at any of the majors this year.
She wasn’t able to qualify for the year-ending WTA Finals for the first time since 2010 and ended up getting a longer vacation than usual due to her earlier than usual end to the season.
That inspired her and her team to change up their preseason preparations and they decided, for the first time, to come to Dubai to train and get ready for 2018.
Radwanska, who got married to her hitting partner Dawid Celt last July, was joined by him, Wiktorowski, her fitness trainer and physio at the Aviation Club in Dubai, where they focused on her physical conditioning to help her bounce back to her top form.
They also worked on her strength and endurance at Um Suqeim beach – something she admits was a new addition to her training regimen.
“It is painful. It was painful and I’m still tight,” she said with a laugh, referring to those sessions on the beach.
“But I think it’s something different and it’s very nice to do something new. Obviously so many years on tour you’ve been practicing the same things over and over again, millions of the same hits and training, so running on the beach is something new. I still have a couple of more sessions on the beach so we’re going to see if I survive.”
She assured she’s feeling fit though, and is hopeful that her injury woes are behind her.
“Physically I’m good so far, being healthy and my foot is also much better than it was. I’ve been working on that for a really long time and I really hope it’s going to be much better next year,” added the 28-year-old.
Wiktorowski explained that the two-week training block they had in Dubai was all about her physical preparation. Their time in the Emirates coincided with Petra Kvitova’s preseason training in Dubai but the Radwanska and Kvitova didn’t practice together because the Pole had not reached that stage – hitting with another pro – in her 2018 prep.
“We’re not even looking into good hitting partners at the moment. We have two physical trainers with us. This is a pretty tough time for Aga, but then we plan I hope a pretty good recovery and in a week we start specific preparation for tennis,” said Wiktorowski.
“It is a very unusual schedule for us, first time since I remember she didn’t qualify for Singapore so she had pretty long holidays. So I hope she had a good recovery at the same time. So far everything went smooth and easy for us, but yes that was a tough year with a lot of injuries and a virus. But I hope we’ve already dealt with this. She’s healthy and we’re doing whatever we can to prepare her next year.”
Radwanska will kick off her 2018 season in Auckland and she knows she’s facing a unique challenge, trying to climb back up the rankings.
She insists her goals remain the same though as she continues to chase an elusive Grand Slam title and is not daunted by the task at hand.
The Krakow-native also refuses to blame her current lower ranking solely on her injuries, stating that the competition in the women’s game has gotten fiercer.
“It is something new for sure but well that’s how it is, especially with so many things going on this year,” Radwanska says of her ranking position.
“And also for sure I must say that there’s a lot of players that are playing at a really high level right now and a lot of young up-and-coming players also playing great tennis so it’s been really tough. Every year it’s getting harder and harder and you really have to work also harder to stay there. For sure it’s a number where I didn’t really start from before but well, we start from there.”
Asked if this is a “tricky situation” for Radwanska, Wiktorowski quickly responds: “It’s not tricky it’s additional motivation to get back to the top. I mean 28 is not bad, I’m not saying it’s a disaster, just an unusual start of the season for Aga but we’re looking to a brighter future.”
Radwanska is arguably the craftiest player on tour, which is why it’s no surprise she keeps winning the ‘Shot of the Month’ awards all year and is voted as a ‘fan favourite’ each season.
The Polish ‘ninja’, as her fans affectionately call her, does not have a power shot to rely on though. The upcoming generation of young talent on tour is predominantly all about power, with players like Jelena Ostapenko and Madison Keys being true masters of all-out attack with their cannonball shots. Does Radwanska feel she has to adjust her game to counter all these big-hitters?
“There’s so many girls playing at the top-10 level. As we can see, there are so many different names winning big events which is something we haven’t seen before that much,” said the former Wimbledon finalist.
“For sure next year is going to be a very interesting year, challenging for so many players as well. Every tournament is a different story and for sure women’s tennis has proven that.
“There’s a new generation playing very powerful tennis but there are still players playing similar to my tennis. There’s always going to be two different styles of tennis on the tour.
“I’m not going to really change my tennis because that’s how I play and that’s how I can play. But it also depends on the day and surface and tournament, how it goes, but you can see so many different scores every single week. Of course nobody’s perfect, you always need to improve everything, all your shots and all your tennis because everything is going forward. But I have to stick to my game and do everything I can to play better and better.”
Wiktorowski believes tennis is becoming more and more exciting with lots of fresh faces coming up. He acknowledges that younger players are hitting with higher mph but has confidence Radwanska can find ways to stop them.
“She’s one of a kind, it’s hard to give another example of this kind of player, playing this style. Maybe in the past it would be easier to find some players playing this kind of tennis,” he says of Radwanska.
“It’s not like we’re looking into the future from different perspectives than what we’ve been doing so far. We can’t change too much.
“We can maybe adjust some things. She has to be prepared to compete with those girls. I’m looking more into the physical preparation at the moment than technical stuff on court.
“Tennis has to stay almost the same. Of course we expect maybe some more big shots, different tactical solutions on court, but we can’t change her tennis. But what we can do, and where she has some reserve to use is for sure her physical preparation.”
One thing is for sure – the gap between the players was smaller this season, and there were seven different women who could have ended the year as the world No. 1 depending on their results at the season-closing WTA Finals in Singapore.
Simona Halep ultimately walked away with the top ranking, while Wozniacki took home the WTA Finals crown.
Four different players won the four Grand Slams in 2017 with Serena Williams clinching the Australian Open, while she was pregnant, Jelena Ostapenko claiming a maiden major trophy at Roland Garros, Garbine Muguruza winning a second Slam and first at Wimbledon, and Sloane Stephens making a stunning run to the US Open title.
So who does Radwanska consider the ‘Player of the Year’ in her book?
“I think consistency is what matters and I would have to say Caro (Wozniacki) because she played all year very well, on every surface, so many finals. She was very consistent the whole year, so I would pick her, even without the last title she won (in Singapore), I think she was the best this year,” said Radwanska of her friend Wozniacki.
Johanna Konta has appointed Michael Joyce as her new coach.
The British number one has been looking for a replacement for Wim Fissette since they parted company in October and has turned to the 44-year-old, who used to coach Maria Sharapova.
Joyce will be in Konta’s camp for the first tournament of the new season in Brisbane, starting on January 1.
“Michael is a fantastic coach with a great pedigree and I’m really excited to work with him,” she announced on Wednesday.
“2017 has been amazing but I feel like there is so much more to come. Our first tournament together will be the Brisbane International and the plan is for Michael to travel with me full-time through 2018.”
Konta ended her partnership with Fissette after a disappointing end to what had been an impressive 2017. She won her biggest singles title of her career in Miami and followed that up with a run to the Wimbledon semi-final, which sent her to number four in the world.
But that proved the high point of her campaign and a poor run of form in the autumn saw her part ways with Fissette in October.
After a lengthy recruitment process she has now appointed Joyce, who worked with Sharapova for seven years between 2004 and 2011 and helped the Russian to two grand slam titles and the world number one ranking.
The American, whose highest rank as a player was 64 in 1996, has most recently worked with another former world number one Victoria Azarenka.
Konta has retained Gill Myburgh as her strength and conditioning coach, Milly Mirkovic as her physio and Elena Sosa as her mental coach.
The American, seeded third in the tournament, was beaten by the Latvian fifth seed in two straight sets 7-5, 6-3 in one hour and 28 minutes at the Hengqin International Tennis Centre.
Stephens, 24, was a first-round loser at the Wuhan Open and the China Open in Beijing before pulling out of Hong Kong, but insisted Monday she wasn’t feeling under pressure.
“I don’t think I played terribly,” she said of Wednesday’s match.
“I was happy to be playing better than my last matches, so that’s a good thing.”
French top seed Kristina Mladenovic was also defeated Wednesday by Slovakia’s number one Magdalena Rybarikova 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (5), in a tight match that saw Rybarikova squander six match points before finally sealing her victory.
Twenty-four-year-old Mladenovic, ranked at a career-high number 10, still has a chance to qualify for the semis but Rybarikova was confirmed out late Wednesday given the round robin format.
“(There were) ups and downs from my side, but… there’s a lot of things to take out from this match, lots of positives,” said Mladenovic, who is now on an 11-match losing streak.
But her first-match loss in Zhuhai also follows a recent poor run, including an upset by Croatian Jana Fett at the Japan Women’s Open in September, where she was again top seed.
Earlier in the season she reached the semi-finals at Indian Wells — a result which saw her break into the world top 20 for the first time, temporarily overtaking Caroline Garcia as French number one.
“(It was) a pretty unique season,” she said.
“The second part is dramatic, is terrible. The first part is also dramatic but in a positive way.”
Despite “the tricky journey”, the French number two said she had improved a lot.
Separately, the tournament’s youngest player and ninth seed Ashleigh Barty cruised to victory over Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in just one hour and 11 minutes, firing nine aces for a 6-4, 6-1 triumph.
The 21-year-old, who began the year ranked outside the top 300, made the final in Wuhan and recently became Australia’s top player.
“I feel like I’m playing really well this whole year,” she told media, adding that she wants to finish “strong”.
On Thursday she faces German Angelique Kerber who she met in Brisbane at the start of the season. Kerber, then world number one, survived a big scare from the Australian wildcard entry.
“I think I’m in a bit of a different position than I was in January when we played against each other,” Barty, now ranked 20 in the world, said.