Many people through the years have made the point that contrasting styles are what make for transcendent sports clashes. Ali was a dancer, Frazier a bruiser. Navratilova charged the net and Evert tried to pass. Nicklaus calculated and Watson conjured. Chamberlain attacked and Russell defended.
These are oversimplifications, of course, but the players did contrast, and, together, like the right chemicals, their games detonated and staggered the mind and became unforgettable.
Somewhere early in Thursday’s Sabine Lisicki-Agnieszka Radwanska match, a story came into focus. The names at this Wimbledon have been widely mocked. Serena’s out. Sharapova’s out. Federer’s out. Nadal’s out. Who are these survivors? Lisicki? Radwanska? Who are these people? Why should we care about them?
But it only took a few moments of watching to know them and, in a weird way, understand them.
Lisicki has a big serve, a huge forehand, and a mercurial streak as wide and unpredictable as the Autobahn -- one minute, she’s brilliant, the next she’s helpless, she will hit four of the best shots you’ve seen in your life and then hit her next five forehands into the bottom of the net. She will hit serves with the most absurd angles, as if they are those little remote control helicopters, and then double-fault two in a row. All the while, she has this huge smile that she flashes after her best shots (Wow, that was good!) and her worst (Wow, that was terrible).
Radwanska, meanwhile, is a classic overachiever with a nothing serve, an awkward forehand, crystal-ball anticipation, a certain steadiness and a gift for what only can be called tennis imagination. One of her deadliest shots is a slice backhand that appears from any angle to be a dropshot. Only then, she has an imperceptible way of cutting the ball so that it actually pushes to the back of the court. Opponents rush forward to get the drop shot that never comes only to find themselves helplessly watching the ball float by.
A great sports clash does not only have contrasting styles, it also has moments when each style dominates. In the first set, Lisicki overpowered Radwanska. She hit the ball so much harder, and into so many open spaces, that finishing the match seemed pointless. Lisicki’s fierce serve, which withered Serena Williams, did the same to Radwanska. But even more than her own serve, Lisicki teed off on Radwanska’s serve, made it look like a silly little shot. When Radwanska missed her first serve, you could almost see her visibly shaking before attempting her tepid and loopy second. The only surprising part of the set was that Radwanska managed, through various bits of magic and sleight of hand, to keep the score relatively close. Lisicki hit 19 winners. Radwanska hit 4. The first sent went to Lisicki, 6-4, and then Lisicki immediately broke serve to start the second set. The match seemed all but over.
And then, like the fifth round of the Thrilla in Manilla, everything turned. Radwanska is the fourth-ranked tennis player in the world, and the reason is that despite her all-too-apparent weaknesses, she knows how to break opponents spirits. She mixes in a bunch of different kinds of shots -- slices, drop shots, lobs, crazy angle topspin -- and she returns one more shot than you expect, and she makes opponents THINK about things. Athletes get into trouble when they think too much. At one point, Lisicki charged the net and an off-balance Radwanska hit a weak shot to her forehand. It was a volley that a pretty good club player can put away. It was too easy. Lisicki punched it long. And the match changed.
Now, it was Radwanska moving Lisicki all around the court, forcing her to make error after error, getting in her head. Lisicki’s smile disappeared. She began to yell at herself. How many times through the years had Radwanska seen an opponent melt down before her eyes? She broke Lisicki’s serve, broke it again, broke it again, Lisicki seemed at a complete loss of what to do. She made 17 unforced errors in the second set. Radwanska made three. Even when Lisicki got her huge first serve in, Radwanska seemed to be in perfect position, as if she was reading minds.This set went to Radwanska, 6-2, and then to compound things Radwanska won the first three games of the third set too.
So, each side had dominated for a time. Lisicki’s power and energy had commanded the match. Radwanska’s anticipation and equilibrium had commanded the match. Then, in the amazing third set, their styles crashed and soared. Both played brilliantly. Lisicki regained her balance, hit a few breathtaking winners, evened the set. Radwanska, with both legs wrapped in bandages, dug in. One point told a story. There was a a rally, then Radwanska hit a glorious drop shot just over the net in the ad court, and it seemed out of reach. Lisicki chased after it, stretched, and somehow got her racket on it, but more than that, she hit this geometrically dubious shot that seemed to run parallel to the net and then dropped across the court, a sure winner. Radwanska, absurdly, chased after it, but somehow SHE reached it, lunged, and punched the ball into the open court -- she had run so hard, so fast, that the momentum propeled her behind the umpire’s chair and halfway to the Royal Box.
And then, as if the point needed anything more, Lisicki ran back, pulled out some sort of yoga move to get her racket in position and floated the ball back into the court. Radwanska was so stupefied that she threw her racket toward the ball, a signal that even she could not believe what they were doing out there.
In the 10th game, Lisicki served for the match. She rose to the moment, belting first serve after first serve. Only Radwanska, again reading minds, returned them all and won back the game. In the 12th game, Radwanska returned for the match. She pushed the game to deuce -- two points away from the Wimbledon final -- but Lisicki crushed two shots, neither which Radwanska could handle, and the match continued on.
At some point in sports duels like this, somebody wins and somebody loses. That’s obvious. But in the best matches, like this one, you have no idea who it will be until the very end. I think that’s why we like overtime in hockey so much. You don’t even have a feeling anymore, you are just waiting to see what happens. Lisicki, when right, hit the ball too hard and too close to the lines for Radwanska. And yet Radwanska, when right, was too unshakeable and unwavering for Lisicki. What’s better, inconsistent genius or unremitting dependability? What wins, the greatest shots or the fewest mistakes?
On this day, it was Lisicki -- overpowering Radwanska’s serve in the 15th game and then serving it out with force in the last. She won the final set 9-7. The match lasted two hours and 18 minutes -- exactly half of that in the third set.
Lisicki fell to her knees in triumph. She looked up at the crowd in amazement. Radwanska’s handshake was short, she gathered her things quickly, and she rushed off the court to deal with her disappointment. Well, some matches are so thoroughly emotional, so perfectly framed, so volatile and wonderful and painful that they take the players -- and, to an extent, all the lucky people watching -- into a deeper place. What is it Ali said after the Thrilla in Manilla? “Closest thing to dying I know of.” And Ali won that fight.