French Open: Cibulkova d. Azarenka

by: Richard Pagliaro | June 03, 2012

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DCRRDominika Cibulkova hurled herself into a forehand with such force that her blond braid bounced off her back and was draped over her forehead by the time she finished her follow through. Pouring passion and every bit of power from her 5'3" frame into each point, a fearless Cibulkova toppled world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, 6-2, 7-6 (4), to reach the Roland Garros quarterfinals for the second time in four years.

The shortest woman still standing in the field drilled some mammoth shots to downsize the Australian Open champion, scoring her first win over Azarenka since their last clay-court clash at Amelia Island four years ago. The top-seeded Belarusian had beaten Cibulkova in seven of their eight prior meetings, but the aggressive baseliner from Bratislava built a 6-1, 5-2 lead over Azarenka in their last match in Miami, only to blow it, suffering a gut-wrenching, 1-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5 defeat. This time, a fierce Cibulkova finished what she started, striking 28 winners to Vika's 19.

Azarenka converted her sixth break point to break in the 15-minute opening game, only to see Cibulkova break back at 30 to level it. Standing nearly eight inches shorter than her six-foot opponent, Cibulkova does not have a wide wingspan, but she played with expansive ambition in refusing to back off the baseline. She took some of the top seed's best shots on the rise and cracked the ball into the corners.

A sharp-angled backhand drew an Azarenka error as Cibulkova broke for 4-2 in the first. She then won four consecutive games, capped with a drilled, deep return that provoked an errant Azarenka forehand. Seizing the set with a clenched fist, Cibulkova yelled a rousing "Come on!"

Bouncing on her toes behind the baseline and pumping her fist to punctuate winners, Cibulkova brought the body language of a boxer to this battle. Azarenka, who fought back from a one-set, 0-4 deficit to tame Alberta Brianti in the first round, dug in, saving a couple of break points to hold for 2-0. Undeterred, Cibulkova held at love and squeezed a clever backhand drop shot to break for 2-2, as Azarenka raised her racquet in the air as if ready to slam it to the court.

The stick survived—briefly—but met its demise as Azarenka as she fell behind 3-2, before dropping serve to fall into a 4-2 hole. Then Azarenka lifted her level, striking with greater conviction and hitting some high shots out of the diminutive Slovak's strike zone. She reeled off four of the next five games to forge a 6-5 lead. But serving to force the third, Azarenka stumbled, spraying two errors and a double fault before dragging a backhand wide to drop serve.

Cibulkova took charge in the tiebreaker with a backhand winner down the line, followed by a slick backhand drop shot and a cross-court backhand pass for a 4-2 lead. Azarenka then narrowly missed a forehand down the line, handing Cibulkova three match points. Drawing Azarenka to net with another drop shot, Cibulkova fired another cross-court backhand pass to seal the one hour, 47 minute conquest, collapsing on the red clay with the wide smile of a winner.

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