Did you have any doubts about what Dominika Cibulkova’s strategy would be against Angelique Kerber on Sunday in Singapore? If so, they couldn’t have liungered for more than about 30 seconds. That’s how long it took for the 5’3” Cibulkova to launch herself into the air and launch a forehand past her opponent for a winner. “Hiya!” Cibulkova yelled as she karate-chopped the ball into the tarp at the back of the court. Domi, it was clear, was going for it.

This was not a surprise. The ever-energized Cibulkova knows only one speed: full throttle. But facing Kerber, a steady defender and expert counter-puncher, makes Cibulkova’s decision-making even easier; she doesn’t have any choice but to dictate. More important, even if Domi starts missing, there’s no reason for her to hesitate or rethink or worry that she’s not playing the match the right way. She just had to make her shots. Lots of them.

That may sound simple enough, but it had been three years since Cibulkova had made a sufficient number of those shots to beat Kerber. On paper, there was little reason to think that would do it this time, either. Yes, Cibulkova had taken a set from Kerber in their round-robin encounter last Sunday, but Kerber hadn’t dropped another all week, and her level of play had risen with each match. A victory by Kerber seemed to be the most likely, and most appropriate, end to a WTA season where she had become the tour’s unexpected star.

Except that, even as Kerber was having a career year in 2016, so was Cibulkova. At 27, she had recovered from surgery, gotten married, won three tournaments, returned to the Top 10 and qualified for her first WTA Finals. To Domi, it seemed just as appropriate that this season would end with the biggest title of her life.

“Right now, I don’t doubt myself anymore,” Cibulkova told reporters in Singapore. “I mean, I don’t doubt myself this year at all.”

When her coach told her, midway through the season, that she could finish in the Top 5, Cibulkova embraced the idea.

“I believed, ‘OK, this is something I can do, I want to do,’” she said. “I’m not saying I was coming to this tournament to win it, but when I was so close before the finals, I was convinced that I can beat Angie today.”

Beat her she did. This was not a match that the world No. 1 lost because she had a bad day; it was a match that the world No. 7 won because she had a very good day. Cibulkova jumped—and leaped, shuffled, backpedaled and sprinted—out to a 3-0 lead in the first set. From then on, every time Kerber threatened to creep back in the match and get her teeth into the rallies, Cibulkova bolted out to another lead.

It started with the first shot: Domi made 83 percent of her first serves, and was broken just once. Kerber, meanwhile, double-faulted six times and was pushed backward by Cibulkova’s hard, heavy returns down the middle. Once Cibulkova had the advantage in a rally, she didn’t give it back. At one stage, she was making contact inside the baseline on 28 percent of her shots, while Kerber was doing it just 11 percent of the time. Often, Cibulkova was closer to the service line than she was the baseline when she connected with the ball. She finished with 28 winners to Kerber’s 14.


Of course, it wasn’t all that straightforward. Cibulkova has had her issues closing matches for most of her career, and she had an issue in this one. On her first championship point, she decelerated on her serve and double-faulted. On her third championship point, she drilled a putaway forehand into the net. Both times, though, she smiled her way through the disaster and did what she knew she needed to do: Keep pounding. Finally, on her fourth chance, Cibulkova pounded the ball into the perfect spot: the tape. The ball bounced upward, flew sideways, hung in the air for a split-second...and came down on Kerber’s side of the court for a winner.

“I have no words, coming here for the first time, the biggest tournament of my life,” said Cibulkova after her 6-3, 6-4, 76-minute win. When it was over, she celebrated by falling to the court as fast she possibly could. “I still don’t know how I won: I put the ball over the net and it went in. It’s the happiest moment of my life.”

For Kerber, it was a bitter end to a sweet season. On the one hand, she won two major events, the Australian Open and U.S. Open, and lost to Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final. On the other hand, Kerber lost two important finals—at the Olympics and the season-ending championships—to two players she was expected to beat (Cibulkova in Singapore, Monica Puig in Rio).

In both cases, her opponents were able to hit pretty much any shot they wanted to hit, and construct rallies any way they wanted to construct them. In women’s tennis, it’s offense that traditionally wins big championships, and it’s players who can create their own winners from scratch who succeed at the highest level. While Kerber broke that rule to a degree this season, it went back to being true on Sunday; Cibulkova won with an all-out offensive attack. At the same time, she showed that Kerber’s opponents are perfectly capable of adjusting against the new No. 1. Domi decided that she was going to go after Kerber’s middling serves and put her on the defensive as quickly as possible, and it worked. I’m guessing that a few other players and coaches around the tour took note.


According to Cibulkova, her game worked because, this season, for the first time, she believed it could work against any opponent. For so many players, especially ones who aren’t physically imposing, the primary obstacle to winning big events is their imagination: They see themselves as good players, hard workers, people who never give up, who love to grind and know they need to put in the extra mile or three; but they don’t see themselves as major champions. I’ve always thought that was part of what held Nikolay Davydenko, David Ferrer and, so far, Kei Nishikori back. According to Cibulkova, it has held her back as well.

“I always had my coach to motivate me, to put the bigger goals for me,” she said on Sunday. “I think that was my—not problem, but something I was dealing with. I never saw myself as such a great player, you know, consistent player, somebody who could be Top 5.”

Seeing—and doing—is believing; she’ll be No. 5 on Monday. Domi went for it, and she got it.