During the off-season, players get to make use of time usually spent on the road or on the court during year on fitness and conditioning. Far from a time when one can sit around and indulge in a heaping slice of chocolate cake, players from Monica Seles to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova have tended to take advantage of these working vacations to emerge fitter, faster, and ready for the grueling Australian summer.
Yet despite these physical transformations and the higher expectations that should go with them, we as spectators hardly predict that these athletes’ almost-superhuman bodies will hold up for more than a couple of hours. And when they are put through extreme physical tests, a letdown is not only forgiven, but also a foregone conclusion. Not that this is a call for the “letdown loss” to be judged more harshly, but why do we underestimate our athletes?
Perhaps because when a player convincingly knocks out a top 10 player less than 24 hours after a five hour war of attrition, we find the effort all the more impressive. Such was the case for Dominika Cibulkova; the top 20 stalwart and pint-sized dynamo stayed on the court for a staggering four hours and forty-six minutes in the hopes of toppling last year’s Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova.
In sweltering heat that read 106 degrees on the thermometer but felt like a balmy 120 on the court, Cibulkova broke the Russian as she served for the match and barreled through a final set tiebreaker (the second of the match) to earn a spot in the Sydney quarters, where she would face Sara Errani, one of the impact players of 2012.
If one lacks a cursory knowledge of tennis, pure common sense should dictate that if one had to run for five hours, the idea of running for at least another 90 minutes sounds like torture. Against a grinder like Errani, that 90-minute dash could easily be extended into yet another marathon. Before the two diminutive big guns even took the court, it appeared easy to predict how the match should go: the heavy-hitting Slovak would punch herself out until she hit a wall, and the steady Italian would slice and dice until she had made pepperoni pizza out of a tired opponent.
To watch the match, one would have thought that Errani herself had not only hit a wall, but also had decidedly banged her head against it a few too many times. Looking flat and lacking the usual snap on her high, topspin groundstrokes, she had no answers against an on-fire Cibulkova, who appeared fresh from a light jog as opposed to lead-footed from a slugfest. Bellowing her signature “Pome!” (Slovakian for “Come on!”), Cibulkova was firing from all cylinders, knocking anything that landed short into the corners and seemed unbothered by the fact that Errani consistently forced her to generate her own pace.
A slight wobble towards the end of the match from Cibulkova treated the Grandstand crowd to a tense ending to what was otherwise one-way traffic for the Slovak, who will again get little rest as she prepares to play No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber for a spot in the final.
It is at this point in the article where one would openly question Cibulkova’s ability to replicate success for a third straight day, whether she has enough left in the proverbial tank to take out another elite counterpuncher. But asking whether she can keep going is a foolhardy question for the ultimate Energizer Bunny.