Serena Williams rode a borrowed bicycle to work to beat the congested traffic before her third-round win. Clogged by a case of mental gridlock today, Williams looked like she could have slapped on a pair of roller blades during the changeover and still struggled to gain ground on a streaking Dominika Cibulkova, who cruised to a 6-2, 4-1 lead in reducing the world No. 1 to the role of retriever.
A lethargic Serena looked stiff and out of sorts, struck shots flat-footed, and saw the 5’2” Cibulkova frequently beat her to the punch in baseline exchanges. On an overcast afternoon, things looked so bleak for Williams that her father, Richard, stood up from his courtside seat and walked out of the stadium for a bit when his daughter fell behind 0-2 in the second set.
But navigating her way out of jams has been a career trademark for Williams. Revving up her intensity and finding the range on her serve, the top seed reeled off six consecutive games to spark a 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory that sent her into her 12th Miami quarterfinal in 13 career appearances at Crandon Park.
It was a match of wild momentum shifts, as Williams broke to open the contest and quickly built a 40-0 lead, only to see Cibulkova break back. Williams' backhand is typically a rock-solid shot, but she couldn’t find the court at times off that side as Cibulkova crunched her inside-out forehand to great effect. Good example: The 13th-seeded Slovak capped a 14-shot rally with an inside-out forehand winner for her second set point. She followed with yet another to seize the 33-minute first set, breaking three times and benefiting from 18 unforced errors from Williams.
Cibulkova has the thickly-muscled legs of a grinder, but at heart she’s a fighter who hurls herself into her flat shots like a woman swinging for a knock-out. Hitting her forehand from her backhand corner, she baited Williams into going down the line with her backhand at times; Serena made five consecutive backhand errors at one point, falling into a 0-3 second-set hole.
Digging in, Williams slammed a slick swinging backhand volley winner to open the seventh game, and that shot sparked some life into her legs as she broke at love for 3-4. Opening the ensuing game with her sixth ace, Williams consolidated with a love hold to level at 4-all, eventually reeling off 11 straight points. Cibulkova had a game point for a 5-4 lead, but ended one of the longest exchanges of the match with an errant backhand. Williams opened the court with a crackling backhand down the line and slammed a smash to break for a 5-4 second-set lead.
A biting serve drew a short reply and Serena pounced, cracking a cross-court backhand winner to reach set point and erupting in a declarative “Come on!” before sliding an ace out wide to seal the second set with a run of five straight games. Williams hit 19 winners compared to Cibulkova's three in the 46-minute second set.
“Mentally, I was just struggling; playing a really good opponent I was making so many errors I just couldn’t pull myself together,” Williams said afterward. “I saw someone over there [in the crowd] told me to relax and I saw my dad was calm, so it was about taking that energy and doing better.”
The five-time champion broke twice to open the final set before consolidating at 30 for a 3-1 lead. Williams slammed successive aces to close a tough match in style and set up a quarterfinal with Li Na. The pair met in the 2009 quarterfinals, with Li storming out to a 4-0 lead before Williams rallied for a 4-6, 7-6 (1), 6-2 victory. Serena has won six of seven matches with Li, but four of their last seven sets have been decided in tiebreakers.