Miami: Cibulkova d. V. Williams

by: Peter Bodo | March 24, 2014

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MIAMI, Fla.—It wasn’t so long ago that Dominika Cibulkova was known for failing to finish matches she was positioned to win. Tonight, she may have driven the final nail into the coffin of that theory—a nail as sharp as the wicked forehand placements that have carried her to No. 11 in the world.

Cibulkova rallied after blowing a big lead against Venus Williams, winning their fourth-round match at the Sony Open, 6-1, 5-7, 6-3, in two hours and 19 minutes.

The score doesn’t do justice to the quality of the match, and the joint total of 32 break points (19 for Cibulkova, of which she converted eight) were less the indication of a sloppily played contest than a tribute to the ferocity and efficiency with which these two attacked each other all night long.

Make that “some” night long, for the first set was a throwaway. Williams seemed to have trouble getting her feet to move and her arm to swing for most of the first set. By the same token, Cibulkova was simply ripping the ball, bounding all over the court as she swung from the heels of feet that were more often airborne than touching cement.

Cibulkova leaped out to a 5-0 lead in no time, but Williams probably saved herself from absorbing a humiliating defeat in under an hour when she managed to get a game to avoid a whitewash. She then forced Cibulkova to work her way through multiple deuces before the Aussie Open runner-up served out the set in 34 minutes.

Prolonging the end of the set enabled Williams to get her bearings and make use of a little breathing room. She began to loosen up, although she was broken to start the second set. But then Cibulkova’s game went off a cliff. She made three errors to fall behind 0-40 and handed the break back to Williams with a double fault.

From that point forward, the tennis was highly competitive and unfailingly thrilling. The rallies were played at warp speed, and both women stretched the court as if it were a piece of taffy expanding to allow their shots to fall in.

Serving at 3-all, Williams survived two break points to hold the game and suddenly seemed both reconciled and adjusted to the breakneck pace at which Cibulkova forced the play. With both women freely going for placements, winners and errors flowed off their racquets in nearly equal measure.

Williams broke for 5-3, but she was unable to consolidate. At 4-5, Cibulkova brushed aside a set point with a bold, down-the-line forehand winner and went on to hold. Venus held as well, and then spotted Cibulkova the first two points of the next game. But she went on to win the set by running off four consecutive points, the final one a backhand that Cibulkova smacked long off a return. Set, Williams.

In the third set, Cibulkova once again struck first, with a quick break of serve followed by a hold. Serving at 0-2, Williams lost the first two points but then unloaded a thumper of a serve for 15-30. The next point probably was the turning point of the match.

A brief rally found Williams was up at the net. Cibulkova, in no man’s land, tried to shovel a lob up over her opponent’s head. It was a poor effort, but it paid off when Williams, somewhat out of position, took her eye off the ball as she jerked a backhand drive volley/smash into the net. It was an uncomfortable area for sure, but Williams was right on top of the net and could have bunted the ball back with the handle of her racquet, or her forehead.

That flub made it 15-40, and the next point produced a wonderful rally, both women belting the ball and driving for the lines. It was Williams who blinked, though, making a forehand error that provided Cibulkova with a two-break lead.

There remained plenty of tennis to play, though; most of it of a high quality. Williams broke in the next game, only to be broken back for a 4-1 Cibulkova lead. But once again, Williams broke for 2-4, and then she held the seventh game with an ace. With Cibulkova serving at 4-3 but having increasing trouble getting her serves into play, it seemed the two were destined for a third-set tiebreaker.

Cibulkova started the eighth game with a double fault, and lobbed another one in to fall behind 15-40. But she eliminated the first break point with a cross-court forehand winner and was lucky to get a service return error out of Williams to make it deuce. Williams then misfired with a forehand pass and failed to take advantage of a Cibulkova second serve, making a backhand error instead to give her rival a 5-3 lead.

At that point, Cibulkova smelled the win. She parlayed a deft lob/inside-out forehand combination into an ad point, then won the match the most satisfying way—with a final, cross-court forehand winner.

Stat of the Match: Cibulkova returned so well that she ended up winning 62 percent of the points when she put her first serve into play; Williams managed to convert only 51 percent of her own.

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