Indian Wells: Li d. Cibulkova

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Photo by Anita Aguilar

I suppose the selfie generation would call this quarterfinal match between Li Na and Dominka Cibulkova a “hot mess.” It was, after all, two hours and 35 minutes of unpredictable shifts in momentum and wildly fluctuating powers of execution at both ends of the court.

This was a match that produced a grand total of 32 break points (among which only 10 were converted) and a combined tally of 110 unforced errors. In the end, this was a three-set win by top seed Li, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.

This is the kind of match that happens when you pair up two women who have a healthy history of losing the plot. Few women strike the ball as cleanly as Li, yet she’s always capable of withdrawing into a funk and playing as if the ball were pre-programmed to take random paths when she hits it. Cibulkova has a more interesting and, to her opponents, anxiety-inducing trademark. She often plays like a demon when she’s cornered, but can’t muster quite the same degree of resolve and menace when she’s ahead. Part of that owes to her size (5'3") and the limitations that puts on her ability to weaponize her serve.

These two last met in the Australian Open final about six weeks ago, at which time Li crushed Cibulkova, 7-6, 6-0, to improve her head-to-head edge against the Slovak to 5-0. Since then, Cibulkova has risen to No. 11 in the world rankings, and she had the distinction today of being the first Top 20 player Li has faced this entire year (Cibulkova was outside that group when they met in Melbourne). A young lady, especially one as gifted as Li, can make a lot of money when she’s dealt those cards.

The particulars in this one, laid end-to-end, would encircle the globe three times. So let’s just cut to the chase. The first three games were all service breaks, but then Li gathered herself and played eye-pleasing tennis to win the set with a six-game run.

In the second set, Li appeared to fall under some sort of hypnotic spell watching Cibulkova jackrabbit all over the court, point-after-point. It was almost as if a part of Li just made her pause and ask herself, “Why am I out here when I've already beaten this girl for a Grand Slam title?”

The upshot was predictable. Cibulkova, pounding away at Li’s suddenly AWOL forehand, broke twice to build a 5-1 lead and held on to win the set, 6-4.

In the third set, Li’s touch and focus returned after she was broken in the first game, serving a double-fault to start the game and another one to end it. She broke back for 1-1, then the women fought mightily over the next few games, with no clear winner.

Serving the seventh game at 3-3, Li got herself into trouble at 15-40. Cibulkova had a good look at a second serve on the first break point, but she flubbed the return badly. Li dismissed the second break point with an unreturned serve and went on to hold what probably was the key game of the match.

Significantly, it was all about Li in that game, Cibulkova’s main contribution being that botched serve return. Li had  hit a backhand unforced error, two double faults, an unreturned serve, a cross-court forehand winner, a backhand down-the-line winner, and a game-ending ace.

Armed with a 4-3 lead and dictating the play, Li applied pressure. At 15-30, Cibulkova tried her first drop shot of the match. Li raced up and shoveled back a cross-court forehand, but Cibulkova, fully stretched, couldn’t get quite enough string on the ball to return it. Cibulkova fended off the first of the ensuing break points with a bold forehand approach winner, but then Li forced her into a high-speed rally that ended with a forehand right down the center of the court—and into the tape at the top of the net. That was Cibulkova's forehand, after which Li served her best game of the match to firmly shut the door on yet another fightback.

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