Dominika Cibulkova - Your 2014 Australian Open Underdog

Published: Jan 23, 2014 18:46pm EST
By mds2929, Sports Writer for Konsume Sports

Please Note: This article was updated Jan 23, 2014 @ 06:46pm EST

 

Entering play in Melbourne this year, an argument could be made for the top five in the rankings and seedings standing as heavier favorites than normally seen in women's tennis given not only form, but a history of success on the major stage than many lower-tier players had yet to establish. True to that notion, while second-rung performers like #6 Petra Kvitova and #7 Sara Errani flamed out in the opening round, each of the top five seeds looked strong in making their way through three rounds of competition.

However, the truly major upsets began at that point and have continued all the way through the semifinals. Partially bothered by injury and largely troubled by the aggressiveness of Ana Ivanovic, #1 Serena Williams shockingly saw her streak of 25 match wins come to an abrupt halt in the fourth round. The newly-established odds-on favorite, two-defending champion and #2 seed Victoria Azarenka, would go out three days later in a perplexing meltdown vs. #5 Agnieszka Radwanska. Threaded around these results were the handiwork of Dominika Cibulkova, who overcame dropping the opening set vs. #3 Maria Sharapova to topple the hobbled Russian and just last night turned the tables on Radwanska.

Feted by ESPN announcers for her "genius" play in flustering Azarenka, Radwanska would be broken in the first game of the match, as Cibulkova continued her thus-far-successful gameplan of all out aggression. The result was a surprising 6-1, 6-2 thrashing in which Radwanska's patented strategies of exceptional defense and innovative shotmaking were no match for the onslaught brought to the table by the underdog. Now only one of the aforementioned "Big Five" remains - #4 Li Na, a three-time Australian Open finalist and Grand Slam champion who is the last player standing between Cibulkova and an improbable run to a major title.

Despite being seeded 20th and ranked 24th entering the tournament, Cibulkova is neither an overnight success nor young by tennis standards, unlike fellow surprise semifinalist Canadian wünderkind Eugenie Bouchard. In fact, the 24-year old Slovakian had not only made a Grand Slam semifinal prior to last night's triumph over Radwanska (defeating Maria Sharapova at the 2009 French Open as, oddly enough, the #20 seed before falling to then-world-#1 Dinara Safina), her run these past two weeks game Cibulkova at least one quarterfinal appearance in each of the four Grand Slam events. Despite these successes, as well as three WTA victories, the ninth-year pro has rarely grabbed headlines, while never ascending higher than #12 in the world rankings. After the past eleven days of results, that deserves to change.

On a strictly results-based level, no other player on the women's side of the draw has faced as big of a gauntlet this tournament as has Cibulkova. After opening with former French Open winner Francesca Shiavone and handling overmatched Stefanie Voegele, the 24-year old has faced four successive opponents (soon to be five) who were seeded higher than her, yet dropped only one set in dispatching Sharapova, Radwanska (against whom Cibulkova was just 1-5), #16 Carla Suarez Navarro, and #11 Simona Halep. Not only has Cibulkova been winning, she's done so in dominant fashion, taking seven of her twelve set victories by scores of either 6-0 or 6-1. In ousting the three non-Sharapova ranked players, Cibulkova dropped a grand total of seven games, an absolutely staggering number given the quality of opponents faced.

The key to this success has been what makes the Slovak so fun to watch, as the diminutive (5'3") fireplug refuses to back down and can surprise foes with a game more powerful than her size might indicate. With a better than average serve thus far this tournament, Cibulkova has been able to take advantage of her true strengths: mobility and aggression. The former permits the Slovakian to stay in points that might end early for others, while the latter has led to a staggering 32 breaks of serve through six rounds, the best mark in the tournament (fellow finalist Li ranks third with 30). Being able to get to balls is one thing, but Cibulkova's surprising power on returns is what can really bother foes when her game is on form.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Cibulkova is that she holds an unabashed level of confidence in her own abilities, even when faced with the prospect of taking on the best players in the game or in coming off six consecutive Grand Slam events without so much as a fourth round appearance as was the case in Melbourne this year. No quote better encapsulates Cibulkova's self-belief than her reaction to besting Sharapova (source: ESPN.com):

"I watched the match and it was great," Cibulkova said, on the court after the match, of Ivanovic's loss, "but this was a little bit different. I already beat Maria before and in a Grand Slam at [a French Open quarterfinal in] Roland Garros. That's the most important thing, to believe in yourself."

Small in stature, unafraid of the giants in the game, exuberant in victory, and tenacious on the court - Cibulkova is everything that the public looks for in an upstart for whom to root. Facing the equally likable Li, a 2:5 favorite to finally secure an elusive Australian Open crown and impressive semifinal victor in her own right, will surely be a daunting task. However, given the mountains that Cibulkova has ascended to reach this point, I'm sure that she wouldn't have it any other way. After all, what good is an underdog tale of triumph without one final giant to topple?


 

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