By Kevin Ware
(July 28, 2013) STANFORD, CA – The last time Dominika Cibulkova faced Agnieszka Radwanska on a tennis court, it ended in a 6-0, 6-0 drubbing in Sydney. In today’s Bank of the West final, she erased that brutal memory with a dramatic 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 comeback victory for her third career title, and her first win over her Polish opponent.
But it wasn’t easy.
The first set went on serve until the fifth game, with Cibulkova broken at love in a game that ended emphatically with a jumping over-the-shoulder overhead by Radwanska. She had a chance to break back three games later but was unable to convert the one break point she managed to get against Radwanska’s impressive defense.
Having missed that lone opportunity for a break, she was broken again at love in the next game to hand Radwanska the set, along with a fair bit of momentum heading into the second set.
Cibulkova administered a measure of payback and broke Radwanska at love for 4-3 lead in the second set. That one break was all she needed to take the match into a decisive third.
After dropping the second set, Radwanska left court to regroup with a bathroom break. Cibulkova took this opportunity to call for a coach visit. When asked afterward why she called him after winning the set, Cibulkova had this to say:
“(I called him) because I felt it’s the right time, you know, and he also wanted to tell me something. He told me to stick with my game, and he told me some extra things that I can do. And he calmed me down. He said everything was fine and I’m playing well. Just to keep it up and do a little small changes.”
The brief off-court break initially appeared to help Radwanska at the start of the third set. She began with a strong service hold, including two aces, and regained vital momentum as she raced to a 3-1 lead after another break of the Cibulkova serve.
Cibulkova, however, had other ideas and started working her way back into the match with fearless hitting. She plays with an aggressive “High risk, high reward” strategy, because she’s a big believer in putting fate into your own hands. After her semifinal match against Sorana Cirstea, she said: “I’d rather lose it myself than she hit the winner!”
At times it looked as if the risks were greater than rewards. But as the third set progressed and the breaks of serve from Radwanska’s side mounted (three total for the set), the payoff was evident. A final break of serve for 5-4 gave Cibulkova a chance to serve for the match.
Closing a match is never easy, and this one was no exception. Nerves got the best of Cibulkova on her first three match points as she sent each of three nervous forehands beyond the baseline. The fourth match point featured a thrilling stab drop volley winner by Radwanska on a strong Cibulkova passing shot.
Cibulkova finally won on her fifth match point with a screaming backhand cross court winner that the exhausted Radwanska could only watch. She dropped to her back and savored the well-earned victory.
Radwanska had chances but wasn’t able to convert when it mattered. Her first serve percentage was lower than Cibulkova’s (52% vs. 56%), and was a major reason she faced 14 break points in the match.
Afterward, she talked about some of the issues she faced this week with the court conditions at Stanford, which she never really got used to, and how they affected her game. “I didn’t play my best tennis at all today. I think everything was a problem for me. I couldn’t feel the ball well – actually I couldn’t feel the ball the whole tournament.”
The dramatically different daytime conditions for the final were also problematic for Radwanska, who’d played all of her previous matches as the evening headliner.
“When I played at night it was much slower so I could try something else and mixing up and be in the match. Here it was different, the sun and the heat and everything.”
Apart from a precautionary wrapping of ice on her Achilles, Cibulkova was all smiles after the match. She was jokingly asked about the Sydney final, and whether this was how she responds to a love-love loss.
“The difference between Sydney and today was that I made the first game. And after the first game I looked at my coach and was like, “Here we go. I’m here and it’s gonna be good today.”
It was a good day for Cibulkova, but it could also have been a good day for Radwanska. In a match with 205 total points, Cibulkova won 104 to Radwanska’s 101. Three points separated the two over the course of a 2:30 match. It doesn’t get much closer than that.
When asked if she was going to treat herself to anything special after such a big win, Cibulkova had to think long and hard for a reply. “I don’t know. I bought myself a new car (a Range Rover Sport) before the tournament, so I don’t know. I’ll save some money.”