Coming-out party for Poland
LONDON -- It's not the rise of Poles in tennis that's new. It's the rise of Poland.
Players with Polish backgrounds have been climbing the ranks for a few years now, building their reputations -- and those of the nations they represent. Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki of Germany, Lisicki's fellow German Angelique Kerber and Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak, all have Polish parents or grandparents and speak fluent Polish. On the men's side, Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka has Polish ancestry, and last year's junior Wimbledon and US Open champion, Filip Peliwo, is the only Canadian-born sibling in his Polish family.
But this Wimbledon has been a coming-out party for Poland itself, with the country boasting a player in both the men's and women's semifinals. It was guaranteed its first male Grand Slam semifinalist in history when Jerzy Janowicz and Lukasz Kubot set up an all-Polish men's quarterfinal, which ended with a straight-sets win for Janowicz.Last year's women's finalist Agnieszka Radwanska defeated Li Na, before falling in the semifinals to the not-quite compatriot Lisicki, which means the women's final will also feature a player with Polish connections. Along with Wozniacki, Radwanska and Lisicki used to compete together in Polish events as juniors.
"[W]e played some teams championship in Poland that I think was under 10 or 12," recalled Radwanska. "You know, the time flies, and suddenly we all here playing semifinal of a Grand Slam."
The Polish trio of Radwanska, Janowicz and Kubot also know each other well and have cheered their collective success. Janowicz described this week's events as "magical."
He went to find his countryman Kubot after their fourth-round wins and gave him a hug. After completing their quarterfinal on Wednesday, the two again hugged -- and hugged and hugged. Then, at Kubot's suggestion, they exchanged shirts on the court in a soccer-style gesture of friendship.
"I said, let's go. Let's exchange. Let's make our tennis more famous, more popular and show that Poland tennis is in the map of tennis," said Kubot. "I think it just shows how important is the fair play and shows the friendship on the court. We're just fighting, you know, with every point, but when match is finished we are friends."
The show wasn't over. Janowicz walked back to his chair and cried, then pulled on another shirt and bowed to all corners of the court. The two players then walked off together, with Janowicz stopping to sign autographs.
For the 31-year-old Kubot, it was a disappointing loss, but at least he made up for blowing match points in the fourth round two years ago, fulfilling his goal of becoming a member of the Last Eight Club.
The veteran was happy to step into the vacancy created by Rafael Nadal's second-round loss, but knew that the stage now belonged to his rising 22-year-old compatriot, who has rocketed up the rankings since coming from nowhere and making the final of the Paris Masters last October. A year ago, Janowicz was a qualifier ranked No. 136. Now, he will leave the tournament ranked no lower than No. 17.
The 6-foot-8 Pole has carved out an indelible identity during his climb, and his description of himself as "explosive" could apply equally well to his game or on-court personality. Janowicz's serve and forehand are powerful weapons that befit his size, while his touch and footwork belies it.
His emotions run to extremes, from tears of joy to furious tirades, such as yelling, "How many times?" again and again at an umpire during the Australian Open, which has since become one of the most popular tennis catchphrases of the year. After defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Rome this spring, he ripped his shirt in a Djokovic-type jubilation. Against his friend Kubot, his celebration was more restrained, but he still pumped his fists vigorously during the match and dropped to the ground upon victory.
"It's not easy to control all of the feelings inside my body," Janowicz said. "I was practicing really tough my whole life. I had some troubles also during my career. You are practicing and working for that kind of moment. So in my case, it's not easy for me to control these emotions."
His parents, former volleyball players, once made their living selling sports goods and other assorted products, but sold the business to finance his career. He could not afford to buy new shoes at the US Open in 2011, and last year, had to miss Australian Open qualifying because he could not afford the journey. Since then, increased sponsorship has made it easier. A clothing company began sponsoring some of Poland's male players two years ago, and Janowicz struck deals with a construction company and car maker after his run at the end of last year. Now, with his earnings this year set to top $1 million after reaching the Wimbledon semifinal, such concerns are in the past.
Lack of funding and facilities have long hindered players based in Poland, even as the children of emigrant families thrived on the circuit. It was the arrival of the Radwanskas, particularly older sister Agnieszka, that showed Poles it could be done at home. She ended a long drought of Polish singles success, which previously had been limited to Wojtek Fibak's top-10 ranking in the 1970s and Jadwiga Jedrejowsa reaching the three Grand Slam finals in the 1930s.
"Everything starts from Radwanska, honestly saying," said Janowicz. "Maybe we realized there's a chance to make some good results in tennis in Poland. We didn't have unbelievable facilities for practice. I remember when I was practicing during the winter under the balloon, was even minus 10 [degree] inside."
"I was the first top-10 player in so many years. I kind of started it," Radwanska said.
Ironically, the Radwanskas could have easily ended up carrying the flag for another nation. Their father, Robert, was working in Granou, Germany, when Agnieszka began to play tennis. But despite the lack of facilities, he decided to return to Poland, finally giving the country some stars to call its own.
Agnieszka thinks more will be on the way. "You know, it's great to have now guys doing very, very well," she said. "Especially Jerzy. He's a young, great, upcoming player.
"I think now tennis is more popular. More people are playing tennis. More kids are on court."