There tends to be an intangible quality to our major champions.
Serena Williams. Roger Federer. Maria Sharapova. Rafael Nadal.
All four have something that puts them above their respective fields, something they likely exhibited long before breaking through on big stages, and something they will likely retain long after settling in among the elder statesmen of the game.
Simply put, they have it.
From her career’s highest highs, it would be fair to assert that Australian Open No. 11 seed Dominika Cibulkova has it, as well.
A closer look makes it safer to say she has, well, something like it.
The diminutive Slovak plays the game and possesses a spirit of one determined to defy the odds. Last year’s Australian Open finalist has spent years blending her speedy, Amanda Coetzer-esque instincts with the more pounding power game necessary to compete with the best in the world.
From her earliest breakthrough on the green clay of Amelia Island nearly nine years ago, it’s fascinating to recall how Cibulkova looked methodical, almost tentative, from the forehand side she now attacks with abandon.
That increased aggression stands in stark contrast to what had been her greatest asset. For a time, it made her the most dangerous floater in tennis. Cibulkova entered each major tournament the preeminent pick, not to win the tournament, but to push a big name and, more often than not, pull off the headline-grabbing upset.
She reached the semifinals of the French Open in 2009, taking out then-“cow on ice” Maria Sharapova along the way. She struck again a year later, taking out then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki on the grass courts of the All-England Club. Though she faltered within moments of ending Victoria Azarenka’s overall winning streak in 2012, she got hers a few months later on Court Suzanne Lenglen – ending the Australian Open champion’s hitherto unbeaten run at that year’s majors.
But tennis is a weird sport, one that requires you to beat the best and the rest – and do both as often as possible. For every breakthrough there was another step back; three Top 10 wins got Cibulkova to the final of Sydney in 2013, but a stunning 6-0, 6-0 loss to Agnieszka Radwanska sent her into a tailspin that not even a Stanford title six months later – where she avenged her loss to the Pole – turned around. She finished the season without making the second week of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time since 2008.
An underwhelming Australian summer hardly set the Slovak in good stead to start 2014; her failure to defend her Sydney points sent her hurtling out of the Top 20.
She headed to Melbourne looking anything other than it.
With eyes elsewhere, Cibulkova went back to basics and did what she does best: take on the it girls of the game, and play them tough. She dropped nine games in the first week and truly caught fire in the second, up-ending No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova, silencing Most Improved Simona Halep, and crushing No. 5 seed Radwanska to reach her first major final.
By spring, the Top 10 debutante appeared to have cracked the code. She was finally beating the best and the rest, winning a small title in Acapulco and finishing strong at the mini-majors in Indian Wells and Miami.
But an odd loss in the wilderness of Kuala Lumpur would be that season’s Sydney final. The last six months of the season proved an unwatchable slog as the Slovak struggled against even the most green of opponents, the nadir coming on Court 6 of the US Open with a loss to American upstart CiCi Bellis.
Ignored a year before, many outright rubbernecked her opening round match against Kirsten Flipkens earlier this week. With nearly half her ranking points on the line, Cibulkova fell behind a set. The meltdown was all but inevitable.
She needed to catch fire one more time; she dug deep and managed to find a match.
Winning sixteen points in a row to start the second set, the No. 11 seed finished the Belgian off in three, and has only gotten stronger since then. Against the always dangerous Tsvetana Pironkova, she made great strides at times, and held the Bulgarian back at others. Standing between her and another trip to the second week is the always entertaining Alizé Cornet, against whom she has never lost.
Lacking the height and obvious ability of her colleagues, Dominika Cibulkova was never one of the game’s it girls. But how she has responded to the pressure this week reaffirms that she just may have it after all.
Or something like it.