The Tao of Domi: What every player can learn from Dominika Cibulkova

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Dominika Cibulkova seems to revel in every aspect of the sport, right down to its scent. (AP)

Most tennis players bounce on their toes as they wait to receive serve. But that’s not nearly often enough for Dominika Cibulkova. The 27-year-old Slovakian, known as the “Pocket Rocket” for her potent mix of smallness and keenness, shuffles back and forth like a boxer as she waits to get the ball to serve. She kicks her legs up behind her as she prepares to start a game. Even as she waits for the ball boy to bring her a towel before she sits down on a changeover, Domi keeps hopping.

“Why,” she probably wonders, “do I have to sit down at all?”

Cibulkova was at her Energizer-Bunny best in her 6-3, 7-6 (5) win over Simona Halep in Singapore. This was a slam-bang affair from start to finish, as both women came out firing and never stopped. Halep, slowed by a knee injury, decided that her only choice was to take the fight to Cibulkova. That’s not a decision the Pocket Rocket needs to make; she can’t play at anything other than top speed. On Thursday, it was Domi who had the better position from the baseline, and the upper hand in the rallies.

“Today I had great rhythm,” Cibulkova said. “Even from the warm-up I was feeling just really fresh and just wanting to go out there, even from the first thing in the morning. I said, ‘OK, today I want to win in two sets.’ I was doing everything for it.”

She didn’t just want to win in two; she knew it was a must. After losing her first two matches in Singapore, Cibulkova’s only hope of qualifying for the semifinals was to make a clean sweep of Halep, and hope that Angelique Kerber did the same to Madison Keys later in the day. That’s exactly what happened. I guess Domi was right to feel good when she got out of bed this morning.

After a decade on tour, Cibulkova is playing in her first WTA Finals; now she’s in the semis. The achievement is a suitable capstone to her best overall season. How has a woman standing just 5’3” negotiated her way into the Top 10 in this era of ever-taller players and ever-bigger hitters? Watching Cibulkova go about her rapid business on Thursday, it seemed to me that any player, from top pros to rank amateurs, can learn a thing or two from how Cibulkova approaches the game.

Call it the Tao of Domi. Here’s a five-step plan for finding it.

*****

Enjoy

Cibulkova seems to revel in every aspect of the sport, right down to its scent; when she gets a ball, she often puts it to her nose. Not surprisingly, after failing to qualify for the WTA Finals for so long, Domi hasn’t taken her first trip to Singapore for granted.

“I’m happy I’m experiencing this for the first time,” she said. “It is different. You feel like, ‘OK, this is only the top players in the world,’ and you want to play your best tennis ... So it’s a new experience for me. I’m happy to be here and to see and to live it, but I’m hoping to win a match. I will do everything to win a match this year.”

After a long season and two defeats, it would have been easy for many players to get negative or even throw in the towel. Not Domi.

*****

Engage

Many WTA coaching visits go like this: The coach talks a mile a minute, while the player stares into space and avoids making eye contact. The opposite is true when Cibulkova calls out Matej Liptak. For one thing, she doesn’t quietly signal to the chair umpire that she wants to see her coach; she waves directly at Liptak—“Come on! Hurry up!”—as she runs toward her sideline chair. Once she’s there, she looks at him, listens to him and chimes in with her own thoughts. When it’s over, they exchange a loud hand slap of encouragement. I have no idea what Liptak was telling her today, but their conversation looked productive.

*****

Make Racquet-Head Speed Your Friend

Cibulkova is well aware of one of tennis’ counterinutive truths: When you’re attacking, the faster you swing, the safer your shot will be. If Domi has a chance at a short ball, she doesn’t hesitate or decelerate. She may pull the trigger too early in a rally, especially when she’s tight; but when she works her way into position for a kill shot, she usually kills it.

*****

Play Fast, But Don’t Rush

Cibulkova doesn’t waste time between points. Whether she wins one or loses one, she “refocuses right away,” as she says, and moves on to the next one—in that way, she doesn’t give herself time to get negative. But what Cibulkova doesn’t do is rush. That happens when a player gets frustrated and starts moving more quickly than normal between points. Cibulkova keeps up her speedy but steady pace at all times.

*****

Fight, Don’t Whine

Cibulkova, at 5’3”, could feel sorry for herself when it comes to her height. Instead, on her serve, she has developed a high but reliable ball toss that lets her get as far up and into the court as she can; she puts so much into the shot that her back leg kicks up as high as her head.

And when her ground strokes do go off—which they do—Cibulkova could doubt herself. And she does get nervous. But she also keeps doing what she knows she needs to do: use her speed to counter her opponents’ size, and get the first strike in before they do. Sometimes it helps not to have too many options.

Finally, in Singapore, after thowing in a clunker of a performance in her straight-set loss to Keys, Cibulkova could have begun to doubt that she belonged in the WTA Finals in the first place. But who has time for that when you can wake up and smell that new tennis-ball smell again?

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