The Top Matches of 2016, No. 2: Cibulkova d. Radwanska (Wimbledon)

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What’s the best way to describe Dominika Cibulkova’s 6-3, 5-7, 9-7 win over Agnieszka Radwanska at Wimbledon? It’s hard to argue with the phrase that the commentator in this clip keeps coming back to:

“Oh my, goodness me.”

The Domi-Aga epic, which clocked in one minute shy of three hours, isn’t No. 2 in our list of the year’s best matches because of its historic significance; it was only a fourth-round contest. It wasn’t the start of an amazing run by the winner; two days later, an exhausted Cibulkova would manage to win just four games against Elena Vesnina in the quarterfinals. And it had no bearing on the No. 1 ranking, though both of these women would finish the season in the Top 5.

This match was memorable for two other reasons. First, there was its brilliant shot-making and knock-down, drag-out competitiveness; by the end, both women looked like they were on their last legs, but the winners never stopped flowing. Second, while Cibulkova and Radwanska each play from the baseline, their matchup offered an old-fashioned contrast in styles. Power vs. finesse, loud vs. quiet, energetic vs. even-keeled: Opposites attracted on this day, and came together to produce something special.

Here’s a look at the 24 minutes of highlights above.

*****

—The pattern is set early: Cibulkova will pummel the ball north to south, mostly with her forehand; Radwanska will send the ball east to west and back again, with any spin, speed or angle she can concoct, most often with her backhand. We knew Domi would grunt with her shots, but it doesn’t take long for the normally silent Aga to join her.

—The most famous matches between these two were blowouts. Radwanska beat Cibulkova, 6-0, 6-0, in the Sydney final in 2013; the following year in the Australian Open semifinals, Cibulkova nearly returned the favor, beating Aga, 6-1, 6-2, to advance to her only Grand Slam final. But those were the exceptions; otherwise, competitiveness has been the rule when these two face off. Four of the five matches they had played before this one had gone three sets, including a lengthy quarterfinal at Eastbourne three weeks earlier, which Cibulkova also won.

—As far as Cibulkova’s game plan went, there was no reason for her to be indecisive.

“With her you cannot do anything else, just to go for it,” she said of her tactics against Radwanska.

And Domi does go for it, tomahawking her forehand whenever possible, and doing as much as possible with Radwanska’s second serve.

“My winners [were] a difference,” Cibulkova said afterward.

She hit 56 of them to Radwanska’s 37.

—If Domi knew how to do one big thing in this match, Aga made up for it with her ability to do lots of smaller ones. Radwanska won points with drop shots and fake drop shots, slice backhands and drive backhands, short angles and reflex passes. After losing the first set, she started hitting the ball harder, and she came back from a break down at 0-1, 1-2, 3-4 and 4-5 in the second. With Cibulkova serving for the match at 5-4, and up 30-15, Radwanska roped a backhand pass winner and won three straight games for the set.

Still, Aga could never take the lead, and could never get out from under her second serve. Lobbing it in at 70 m.p.h., she won less than half of her second-serve points, faced 22 break points and lost her serve seven times.

—As with all classics, this one grew better and more frantic down the stretch. Radwanska stood flat-footed and poked a drop-shot winner an inch over the net. Cibulkova took a towering lob that landed on the baseline and knocked it off for a winner. Radwanska reached match point at 6-5, only to see Cibulkova connect on another forehand winner. Radwanska closed her eyes and snapped back a forehand pass that left her as stunned as Cibulkova.

Both women had the commentator crying, “She’s done it again!” But while he was clearly enjoying what he saw, the same couldn’t be said for Cibulkova’s fiancé, who couldn’t decide whether to stay or go. He ended up listening to some of the third set from the runway outside the court.

—By the end of the third, both women looked gassed. Four days earlier, Radwanska had beaten Ana Konjuh 11-9 in the third, in a match that was almost as good as this one. And this may have been the first time I’ve seen Cibulkova looking less than spry. After one late winner, she screams “Pome!” before trudging, slump-shouldered, to the other side of the court. After another long rally, she sprawls on the grass.

—But just as in our third-best match of 2016, Juan Martin del Potro’s Davis Cup win over Marin Cilic, an umpire’s decision to hand out a time violation at a crucial moment helps decide this one. And as with that match, it’s the victim of the violation who ends up benefiting. At 8-7, 30-30 in the third, Cibulkova has a first serve taken away. She complains, but wins the point to go up 40-30. On match point, she fires one last forehand winner for the victory.

“Today was—for me, I would say—the most physically tough,” Cibulkova said. “It was the toughest match for me, I would say, my whole career ... Sometimes when you play against different players, it’s just enough [with] one winner. But against Aga today I felt like I have to put in six, seven, eight winners to earn the point.”

A brilliant shot-making display. A contrast in styles. And a no holds barred—or shots barred—fight to the finish. As the man in the commentary booth said when it was over, "With matches like this, it's just a shame there's a winner and a loser."

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