Magda Linette Joining the Giant-Killer Ranks

Magda Linette United Cup

Of the eight quarterfinalists at the 2023 Australian Open women’s singles event, Magda Linette is the only one who had never been at that stage of a Slam before. In fact, she had never featured in the second week of a Major before this fortnight, losing all her previous six third-round matches. What’s suddenly so strong about the 30-year-old’s game and why does she deserve the “giant-killer” tag?

Upset queen

Linette lost her first nine matches against top 20 opposition at Slams, two of them against reigning World No. 1s (Naomi Osaka, Karolina Pliskova). It was the 2021 edition of Roland Garros and her win over Ashleigh Barty that brought the positive change, even though the Australian actually retired at 1-6 2-2 down in her second-round match with the Pole. Since then, Linette has defeated five top 20 opponents at tennis’s four most prestigious events, while going down just to WTA #19 Angelique Kerber.

Her list of upsets includes the likes of #4 Caroline Garcia, #5 Elina Svitolina, and #6 Ons Jabeur. Three of these five top 20 defeats she’s already amassed in Melbourne this fortnight, beating Ekaterina Alexandrova and Anett Kontaveit along with the aforementioned Garcia win. The Pole’s record against top 10 opponents in Slams now stands at an incredibly impressive 4-6 with four wins on the spin. How does that compare to some other players known for having a knack for upsets? Kaia Kanepi is at a slightly better 10-12 but, for example, Shelby Rogers doesn’t really compare with 3-9.

Have there been many signs just before Melbourne? Yes and no. Linette did have an incredibly strong showing at the Billie Jean King Cup Finals in November, going undefeated against Madison Keys and Karolina Pliskova. She also pulled off a solid United Cup campaign, this time losing to Keys but winning three matches against some slightly weaker opposition. The week before the Australian Open, she went out in the opening round to Alison van Uytvanck.

While Linette did land a nice draw in Mayar Sherif in her first match in Melbourne (the Egyptian’s hard court record in 2022 was 1-12), the rest of her path to the quarterfinals was far from that. Anett Kontaveit, Ekaterina Alexandrova, Caroline Garcia – all top 20 players, all with absolutely overwhelming power on their day. Even despite her decent form and new-found confidence, taking all of them out was going to require something special from the Pole. Luckily for Linette, this is exactly what she delivered.

Absorbing pace, brilliant serving

The secret behind her run? Mostly the many ways in which she’s been able to negate the huge shots coming at her from the last three opponents. The 30-year-old has excellent skills of absorbing and redirecting pace, which allows her to withstand the siege of powerful players and eventually look for a good counter to regain control over the point. Once she’s back in the rally, she’s quick to find a brilliant angle to get her opponent on the move. Garcia was a different matchup than Kontaveit or Alexandrova due to her ability to close the net, but the Pole’s strokes held up very well even when there wasn’t much time to produce the swing.

Another aspect has been her quality on serve. In the first four matches, she’s managed to fire 17 aces which currently has her in the 6th spot among the whole field, behind some much taller players like Karolina Pliskova, Elena Rybakina, or Donna Vekic. What’s been even more important is the ability to diversify her delivery, mixing up spin and placement to keep the opponents guessing. This is pivotal against power players as they usually try to step forward into the court and secure an advantage on the very first shot of the rally. The variety on her second serve has brought her the 3rd highest points won stat in that category at 61%. No other player with at least three matches in the Australian Open main draw has produced a figure of above 60%.

Full of confidence

In all her matches, Linette had a few moments of being virtually unplayable. She’s been able to produce brilliant shotmaking both defensively and offensively. In the former department, she’s been landing some beautiful forehand squash shots, similar to the one that once won her the shot of the year award on the WTA Tour, or crouching backhands reminiscent of Poland’s former World No. 2 Agnieszka RadwaƄska, who’s been supporting her in Melbourne as she’s playing the legends’ tournament.

On the attack, she just hasn’t been holding back on even the most challenging opportunities to go down-the-line. In all her hard-court matches in 2022, Linette was taking 68% of her backhands cross-court. This number is down to below 50% this fortnight as she’s not afraid to follow through with the shot a bit more and be the first player to take a risk in the rally. Once she’s got the opponent on the move, she’s been excellent in opening up the court for herself to finish off the point. It helps that the powerful players the Pole’s been facing are usually not known for court coverage and flexibility.

Linette will now face the aforementioned Pliskova in the quarterfinals. While their overall head-to-head record stands at 7-2 in favor of the former World No. 1, the pair split their 2022 meetings. The Pole blew a 4-1 lead in the deciding set at the US Open, but was quick to rebound with a win in straights at the Billie Jean King Cup Finals. Once again, the tools required to trouble Pliskova will be somewhat similar to the ones Linette showcased in her previous wins as the Czech is a flat ball-striker with subpar movement, but an absolutely huge serve. If her last three matches are anything to go by, the underdog will have her chances.

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