Little Goes a Long Way

Thursday, January 23, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

MELBOURNE—We understand “Come on!” We know “Vamos!” We get “Allez!” And we’ve heard “Ajde!” and “Davay!” even if we’re not prepared to shout them ourselves. Is the tennis world ready to add another word to its lexicon of exhortation? It’s going to get one on Saturday night, when the surprising Dominika Cibulkova takes her place in the Australian Open women’s final in Rod Laver Arena.

Pome!

Tennis, a sport whose international reach never stops spreading, has now introduced English speakers to the Slovakian way to celebrate a winning point. More significantly, in Cibulkova, it has produced its first Slovakian Grand Slam finalist.

Cibulkova's nationality isn't the only reason why her run to the title match has been such a stunner. Her ranking is the same as her age, 24. At 5’3”, she’s far shorter than the WTA norm. Before this event, she had reached just one other Grand Slam semifinal, at Roland Garros in 2009, and she'd never made it past the round of 16 in Melbourne. Last year she won a total of four matches at the majors (she’s already won six at this Aussie Open alone). And 12 months ago in Sydney, Cibulkova lost to her semifinal opponent today, Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-0, 6-0.

Cibulkova is known for her hyperactive energy on court. Bouncing like a flyweight between games, she marches to get the next ball when a point’s over almost as quickly as she runs when it’s being played. Domi moves fast, and swings faster; not many players generate racquet speed like hers. Despite never cracking the Top 10, she’s a threat to everyone—Cibulkova has three wins over Maria Sharapova and two over Victoria Azarenka. Her problem has been keeping all of that energy under control long enough to be consistently successful from week to week. Most of the time, Domi has gone big with her shots, and gone home.

Today Cibulkova knew that she had no choice but to take risks against the steady, heady Radwanska. Domi had to go big and take whatever consequences, good or bad, came her way.

“Against her,” Cibulkova said, “you have to earn every point, you have to do the right thing, and that’s what I did. I knew I had to go for my shots, and even if I do some mistakes, not back up.”

Cibulkova started aggressively, but when the expected resistance from her opponent came, she was ready for it. She broke Radwanska in the opening game, but it wasn’t until the fourth game that fans here were officially put on upset alert. After a couple of effective shots from Radwanska, who seemed finally to be warming up, Cibulkova snuffed her out for good by saving five break points. She won them on her racquet, with two swing volley winners and a forehand winner—and, naturally, let out a big ol' "Pome!" for good measure. From there, Radwanska, who would win just two more games, went back into her shell. Cibulkova hit 21 winners and made eight errors, saved eight of nine break points, and never gave Aga a chance to show off any of her fabled ninja moves. You can’t use your hands in tennis if your legs won’t get you to the ball.

What was up with Radwanska? By the fourth game, when a woman cried dismally from the stands, “Come on, Aggie,” the audience was asking the same question. After watching her magic-show upset of Azarenka the previous day, most fans had arrived expecting her to pull the same tricks on Cibulkova. But all they saw was Radwanska drilling forehand after forehand into the tape, and walking sadly from one lost point to the next. Radwanska hit 12 winners and made 24 errors, and was broken six times; Cibulkova feasted on her 67-M.P.H. second serves. In the space of a day, Aga had gone from her most memorable performance to her most forgettable.

“I feel like I was in slow motion today,” Radwanska said. “I had a couple of tough matches, especially yesterday. I think I was not fresh enough.”

She said that playing two days in a row for the first time in the event had hurt her.

“I played a very tough match,” Radwanska said of her three-setter with Azarenka on Wednesday, "very high level yesterday. Playing the next day is always tough. That day off would really be a lot for me.”

Aga’s lament echoed the one she gave the press after her loss in the Wimbledon semifinals last year to Sabine Lisicki. It’s true that in both cases she had spent more time on court than her opponent, and it’s also true that not having a day off between big matches is difficult. But it’s something Radwanska, if she wants to challenge for majors, has to deal with. Her game by its nature is labor-intensive, and that’s probably not going to change. But she can shift her scheduling focus, which has always on racking up lots of wins and money and ranking points, rather than peaking at the majors. That's partly because, until recently, Grand Slams have seemed out of her reach. Now they aren’t.

Whatever the reason, it was a melancholy day for Radwanska and the fans she has gained with her idiosyncratic game. Worst of all was watching her last move of the day. Leaving the court, Aga briefly blocked a camera lens with her towel. It wasn’t the second coming of Sean Penn, but it reminded me of the infamous drive-by handshake she gave Lisicki at Wimbledon—at least she shook Domi's hand, even if the only expression she could muster was a frown. Radwanska has now reached three Grand Slam semifinals; hopefully she’ll start to handle them better.

Today Aga got a lesson in handling the bigger stage from a lower-ranked opponent. Besides inconsistency, Cibulkova has struggled with closing out matches over the years. Not this time.

“It wasn't easy when I was up in the second set,” she said after winning 6-1, 6-2. “The thought started to come that I could win. I have to say, I was 100 pecent ready for it and I was just doing what I had to do. That’s why I won.”

“I was very brave, it wasn’t easy to handle,” added Cibulkova, who also said that she began to believe that “anything is possible” when her good friend Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon. Today Bartoli was there to congratulate her afterward, and to share a few tears of shocked happiness.

Cibulkova is terrific in interviews, smart and straightforward, and she has a great smile. She says that her sometimes-unruly energy is her “gift,” and you can feel it when you see her, on or off the court. At times, she can let out a few too many “Pome!”s for me, but I can't help but love when she leaps up to hit a titanic winner with her little body, and then struts off at warp speed. She doesn’t have Radwanska’s nuance or artistic quality, but Cibulkova’s exuberance, her obvious love for what she does, is infectious.

So is her love of winning. Like “Pome!”, Cibulkova’s victory celebrations have become famous. Today, as always, her racquet left her hand as soon as she had won; in milliseconds, she was flat on her back, with her hands over her face. It’s hard to think of another victory move in tennis as spontaneously joyous as Domi’s. Along with her game and her spark, it’s another part of Cibulkova to welcome to the top of the sport.

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