Agnieszka Radwanska clearly is a special player, not that losing to her again in straight sets in a slam did much to ease Heather Watson's pain on her way out of the Australian Open in the third round. Defeat leaves her friend and rival, Laura Robson, as the sole representative in the women's draw, another familiar situation towards the end of the first week of a major.
The British No 1 pushed the fourth seed hard, especially in the first set, and several of the rallies were of the highest quality. However, she could not resist the sustained pressure over an hour and a quarter, Radwanska pulling away towards the end to win 6-3, 6-1.
Only a rare drop of rain midway through the second set interrupted the progress of this delightful talent, a reminder that there is an antidote to physicality in the modern game. She does nothing spectacular, nearly everything well, much as Martina Hingis did when she ruled the world as a 16-year-old.
Visions of being bagled on Centre Court at Wimbledon last year in a third-round match in which she managed to win two games against Radwanska are seared into Watson's memory, and, after a shaky moment at the start, she looked determined to eradicate that pain.
Watson went for her shots with more urgency than in her first two matches here and had her foot on her opponent's throat at 30-40 on Radwanska's serve in the fourth game, but the Pole hung on.
Radwanska is no big a hitter than Watson but she trades in doubt. Her uncanny anticipation of her opponent's placement, allied to superb court savvy, makes her almost impossible to read in longer rallies. It was just such intelligence that brought her the first break, as she pulled Watson wide on her backhand before killing the point with a spear-like, effort-free forehand down the line.
It is that economy of effort that sustains her against the big battalions but this was a fight of more equal physical resources, and Radwanska was taking the early rounds. Watson got her own back in the next, finishing an excellent, clean rally with a cross-court winner after dragging Radwanska to the net. Already, this was a much better contest than the Wimbledon embarrassment.
For neutrals, it was a lovely match to watch, the quality consistently high, but most of the extended pressure was coming from Radwanska, who began to pull away near the half hour. She was winning 61 per cent of the baseline exchanges, and her control of the drop shot when she chose to mix it up kept Watson constantly on edge.
Watson pulled a game back for 3-5, but, caught out of position on a smash at the end of a smart rally, she netted to surrender set point, which Radwanska took in the 36th minute with a deft forehand that Watson could not keep in play.
But, as she showed in her three-hour war to overcome Ksenia Pervak in the second round, there is a lot of fight in the Jersey girl. She dragged Radwanska into a three-deuce struggle at the start of the third before the Pole held with a superb angled forehand from wide of the tramlines.
In the changeover, Radwanska took a medical time-out for the physio to work on the little finger of her right hand, not an injury you see often in elite sport. There looked to be little wrong with the troublesome pinky when she immediately conjured up the most astonishing get, on the run, almost falling over and sticking a racket on Watson's fierce crosscourt backhand that looked for all money as if it was a winner.
That stroke of minor genius led to another break, Watson succumbing to the pressure of exquisitely devised rallies when she pulled a regulation forehand wide, and the rest of the match had a chilling inevitability about it. Watson, who fought cramp and nausea in the first match, cramp again in the second, was simply outplayed by a wonderful player. she has still to beat a top 10 opponent, but she is not far away. Losing to Radwanska was no disgrace, although she will not want to hear too much of that.
Radwanska, meanwhile, is nearing a peak at 23. She will be tough to stop.
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image: © marianne bevis