The beauty of a tennis match is that you can beat your opponent or you can ultimately help them defeat themselves.
Agnieszka Radwanska's brilliance typically falls in the latter category, which was just the case with her narrow 7-6(1), 7-6(3) victory over Ekaterina Makarova in the semifinals of the Rogers Cup in Montréal on Saturday.
Radwanska lost her last two meetings with Makarova handily, going down 6-4, 6-4 in the round of 16 at the 2013 U.S. Open and 6-3, 6-0 at Wimbledon this year. On both occasions, the Russian's offense proved too hot to handle.
This time around, Radwanska got the mix just right against his powerful lefty opponent.
It was a balancing act of not overplaying Makarova's ripping backhand, which proved to be the biggest shot on the court with 16 winners. Makarova regularly ran around forehands in the middle of the court to tag low, flat laser-beam backhands from excellent court position slightly inside the baseline.
Makarova in particular displayed a devastatingly good backhand down the line and anything Radwanska hit short through the deuce court was severely dealt with. Makarova hit 12 backhand winners down the line and four crosscourt, and only committed 18 backhand errors for the match. She had come to play.
But tennis is a game of errors much more than a game of winners and while the short low balls to the deuce court were dispatched as backhand winners, the short low balls to the ad court were rapidly accumulating as forehand errors for the Russian.
Makarova's forehand produced nine winners, with eight of them directed down the line in a similar manner to her backhand. But Makarova committed 33 forehand errors, with an astounding 23 of them going down the line. Makarova was often on defense, trying to play offense down the line, which is a recipe for disaster, especially against a lightning-quick opponent such as Radwanska.
Radwanska was not always able to employ her directional tactics, but when she got the opportunity to feed the forehand and starve the backhand she reaped the rewards of her updated strategy. Overall, Makarova hit 37 winners to Radwanska's 28, but yielded 43 unforced errors to 14. These are the real numbers that speak directly to playing on Sundays.
Makarova's big opportunity to get ahead in the match came when she held two break points with Radwanska serving at 4-4 15-40 in the opening set. Makarova committed a forehand error down the line and a backhand error crosscourt, both slightly bigger shots than the occasion and court position called for.
The Russian did save two set points serving in the next game at 4-5 with a forehand winner down the line that painted the line and a rifling backhand crosscourt winner from the middle of the court that Radwanska couldn't get close to touching. These type of huge groundstrokes seemed to work best for Makarova when she was behind in the score, empowering her to swing away.
With the match in the balance in the opening set tie-break, Radwanska locked down for a 6-0 lead, making ball after ball under pressure while Makarova misfired, not being patient enough to wait for the right ball to pull the trigger.
Radwanska chipped in for 13 forehand winners, with many set up from attacking Makarova's forehand in the ad court, leaving an open deuce court to finish the point.
A strength of Makarova's game was coming forward, where she won 55% (20/36) following her big groundstrokes to the net. Radwanska didn't come in quite as much but was more successful, winning 72% (16/22) of all points coming forward, including sneaking in behind dropshots.
Radwanska directed 75% (34/45) of her first serves at Makarova's backhand, winning 61%, but flipped her strategy on second serves, hitting 80% at the Russian's forehand, where she won 66%. Radwanska may not outhit you, but there is an excellent chance she is going to outthink you.
Radwanska will have to be at her defensive best against another hard-hitting opponent in Sunday's final in Venus Williams. It is another intriguing match-up that promises to showcase two great players with vastly contrasting game styles. Look for the subtleties of court position and Radwanska baiting with off-pace groundstrokes and creating the illusion of an open court, only to be there waiting for the ball when it arrives.
Craig O'Shannessy (@BrainGameTennis) is the leading analyst for wtatennis.com throughout the 2014 season, utilizing SAP Data & Insights to uncover the patterns and percentages that dominate the game. Visit Craig's website at www.braingametennis.com for more expert strategy analysis.