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By Chris Oddo Photo Credit: Julian FinneyAFP/Getty Images

(February 28, 2012)--It’s no secret that there was a dearth of exceptional players coming from Poland before current world No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska rose from relative obscurity in 2006 to become the WTA’s newcomer of the year.

Five-plus years later the Krakow resident has become a perennial top-tenner, a fan-favorite who is known in tennis circles to have a preternatural understanding of tennis’s geometry, and a player with, wait for it…a shot to become a Grand Slam winner.
 
Since her career took off in 2006, Radwanska has been busy rewriting the Polish women’s tennis record books, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any records left for her to chase. Sure, she’s Poland’s sole female Grand Slam quarterfinalist in the Open Era and the first Pole to ever defeat a reigning No. 1, but for the soon-to-be-23-year-old there is one hard-to-pronounce name from the past that will provide her with all the motivation she needs to keep improving: Jadwiga Jedrzejowska.
 
Jedrzejowska, a three-time Grand Slam finalist from Poland in the 1930’s, is to Radwanska what Fred Perry is to Andy Murray. Well, minus the hype and a million or so rabid fans and writers anyway.
 
But even if Radwanska—and most everybody else, too—is completely unaware that Jedrzejowska, simply known as “Ja-Ja” to many thanks to the complicated name, ever existed, the fact that she does reminds us that Radwanska still has some legacy building to do.
 
The five-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist likely won’t get the same harsh treatment that Caroline Wozniacki has been getting ever since she ascended to the No. 1 ranking about her lack of a career-defining Grand Slam title, but now that she is in the top-five for the first time in her career, the pressure for Radwanska to push through the wall that has always held her back at the Grand Slam stage will surely start to grow.
 
Can she handle it?
 
Radwanska has reached the round of 16 or quarterfinals of eleven Grand Slams, and yet she has never broken through to a semifinal. Until her run of fine play in the latter half of 2011 (she won three titles and notched nine top ten wins on the year), it was a generally accepted belief that she lacked the punch to compete at the elite level of women’s tennis.
 
But now, as her game continues to evolve right alongside her confidence, many are asking: Why not?
 
Since toning down the coach-player relationship with her father Robert, Agnieszka has played the best tennis of her career. Perhaps it was the necessary step to help her get to the next level.“My dad, I mean, he was coaching me and traveling with me for 17 years,” Radwanska told reporters in Australia this winter. “Now we [are] just practicing at home together.  But I think, you know, it was a little bit better for me. I have some very good results since then. I think I feel more relaxed.”
 
It’s hard to imagine the self-described lover of rap music (50-cent) and short skirts being any more relaxed, but whatever the reason, Radwanska is clearly playing the best tennis of her career in an era where first-time Slam winners are more common than repeaters.
 
All this bodes well for a surprise run to the pinnacle of tennis for Radwanska, who makes up for what she lacks in power by being creative on the court, hitting flat with angles, and taking balls early to take away time from her opponents.
 
It’s always been an effective strategy against lesser-ranked opponents, but where Radwanska has historically (see the aforementioned eleven Grand Slam flameouts in the round of 16 or quarterfinals) runs into problems is with the formidable baseline bashers that populate the WTA’s top 3. Radwanska has lost six out of seven matches since 2010 versus world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, lost all three against world No. 2 Petra Kvitova, and lost her last six against world No. 3 Maria Sharapova.
 
There lies the problem. Or, if you’re being optimistic, there lies the challenge.
 
Can Radwanska, in her wisest, most crafty moments, find a way to defuse the almost grotesque level of power that these opponents are likely to throw at her in the later stages of Grand Slam events?
 
The ghost of Jadwiga Jedrzejowska is likely watching and hoping that Radwanska can, even if the rest of the world isn’t yet convinced that she has a shot.

 

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