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D&V Debates: Revisiting POMErenka, 2015

The second week of this year’s Australian Open began with a bang; under the closed roof of Rod Laver Arena, 2014 finalist Dominika Cibulkova collided with two-time champion Victoria Azarenka in what became both a dramatic and high-quality affair. Low on match wins and confidence, the diminutive Slovak had been getting better with each round Down Under, and quickly swept to a one-set lead. From there, the unseeded Azarenka got her teeth into the match, and all eyes were on what just may be one of the best matches of the year.

David and Victoria sit down to discuss the players, the performance, and the “Pome!”

David Kane: I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect coming into this match. Cibulkova and Azarenka hadn’t met in nearly three years, and so much has changed since then. Going off of head-to-head and relative quality of opponent, I was half-expecting the Belorussian to rout her way into the quarterfinals. But the Slovak wasn’t going to be the same easy out many had assumed she would be when the draw came out. Despite struggling to start, she didn’t drop a set in either of her next two matches, including a marathon two-setter against Alizé Cornet where she fought off six set points. What were your pre-match thoughts, and what had you made of Cibulkova’s and Azarenka’s first week?

Victoria Chiesa: When Cibulkova went down a set to Kirsten Flipkens in the opening round, I might’ve expected her to crash out of the tournament in spectacular fashion. Yet, here we are – a week later – and she’s proved me wrong. She had struggled to do much of anything after her hot start to 2014, and it seemed as though that form carried over to the start of this season. She came into Melbourne knowing she’d be defending 43% of her current total of ranking points, and she’s done an exceptional job of backing them up to this point. She found a way to defeat Flipkens despite not playing her best tennis, and dismantled Tsvetana Pironkova in the second round. Despite dominating the head-to-head, Cibulkova had every opportunity to crumble against Cornet, but she didn’t.

On the other side, Azarenka’s tournament was similarly up-and-down. Her level was just high enough to defeat an erratic Sloane Stephens in the first round, and she showed some of her best tennis to take out Caroline Wozniacki in the second. Her third round match against Barbora Zahlavova Strycova wasn’t pretty, but goodness, was it entertaining:

DK: We’ve talked a bit about comebacks on TTI this week, and Azarenka’s looked to be going exactly according to plan. She hadn’t lost before the quarterfinals of a hard court major tournament since 2011, and with the win over Wozniacki under her belt, a looming rematch with a struggling Serena Williams made her prospects all the more exciting.

With a 7-2 edge on Cibulkova, she certainly looked the part of the favorite in the opening rallies, quickly grabbing a 2-0 lead.

The deficit roused the Slovak, who proceeded to put on a redux of their 2012 Miami match for the next six games. Early as Azarenka takes the ball, Cibulkova robbed the Belorussian of precious time with each booming forehand, handing the former No. 1 a moral bagel after an otherwise auspicious start. Rather than a drop in level from last year’s finalist, we saw Azarenka change tactics and crash the net, of all places. We don’t often think of her as a one who moves off the baseline, but her doubles credentials are fairly extensive. Were you surprised to see her react to the Bratislavan Barrage in this manner?

VC: In her first three matches, Azarenka had a pretty high rate of success with her forays into the net. It’s an element of her game that she rarely utilizes, and her increased presence there certainly was a factor in her success. It might actually be a good strategy for her going forward. As she continues to return to full fitness, it will likely behoove her to make points as short as possible. In the three-set encounter, Azarenka was 15/21 in points at the net; for comparison, she went 12/21 at the net against Zahlavova Strycova (a 6-4, 6-4 win) and 21/26 against Wozniacki (a 6-4, 6-2 win.) In the second set, she went 12/15, and this was certainly one of the keys that turned the match in the former No. 1’s favor. To Cibulkova’s credit, however, her weight and depth of shot perhaps prevented Azarenka from coming in as much as she would’ve liked to otherwise.

DK: Indeed, it felt as if Azarenka had cracked the code to knock out a heavy-hitting Cibulkova, but she really fell back to start the final set. For the former, does it all come down to the serve? For all the aces she hit in the match, Azarenka’s delivery undoubtedly waned by match’s end.

By contrast, the three sets felt like an exercise in understanding Cibulkova’s evolution as a player. The first showed her aggression, her capability of ending points with sheer will and determination. The second showed a regression into the speedy defender she used to be, one who can’t really bother the best in the game. The third appeared to reconcile those two dimensions into a more fully fleshed out player, offensive and defensive. For as many outright winners as the Slovak hit to end the match, I was equally impressed by her ability to not only play good defense, but also garner a short ball from Azarenka as some sort of reward. I’d wager quite a few of her 44 winners were in points that began with her on the back foot.

VC: Watching these two serve is another compelling aspect of this match-up; despite giving up nearly a foot of height, Cibulkova’s serve often matches and even outpaces Azarenka’s. The Slovak uses her legs much more effectively in her delivery, and makes the Belarusian’s serve seem hitchy and stiff by comparison.

DK: And we all know the odyssey the Cibulkova serve has gone through. Under former coach Zeljko Krajan (Dinara Safina, Laura Robson), her serve became much more side-arm, yielding many of the nervous double faults we saw when the two met in Miami in 2012.

But let’s focus on Azarenka first, since her time in Melbourne has come to an end. Was this week a success, and what does she have to do to get back to where she once was?

VC: It’s easy to call this tournament a success for Azarenka, but one can’t help but think that she’ll be disappointed with how Monday’s match unfolded. She’s made a career of taking balls early and robbing her opponents of time, but it was Cibulkova who beat her at her own game – and then some. I still believe that she can get fitter, which should come with time; she was forced into mistakes far too often against Cibulkova when pulled out wide on the run.

DK: Like Novak Djokovic in 2011, we will likely always judge Azarenka against her stunningly superiod 2012 season. The Belorussian was at a physical and technical peak, and seemingly unable to lose matches to anyone outside Serena Williams. Even as she followed up 2013 about as well as she could have, it just didn’t look the same, and the cracks were beginning to show. I see this season as one Azarenka takes to rebuild, one where she doesn’t get too much, too soon. Beating Wozniacki might set the bar artificially high as the tour continues on her preferred hard courts, but the tendency to overlook Azarenka among the game’s more engaging stars might, ironically, be her secret weapon in 2015.

What do you make of Cibulkova’s chances against top seed Serena Williams? The American might be relieved to avoid rival Azarenka, but if the No. 11 plays as she did Monday afternoon, Williams might be in for another long match. She struggled against Garbiñe Muguruza, who plays a similarly stifling ground game, but has never lost to Cibulkova. With a Top 20 ranking assured, will Cibulkova continue to play fearless tennis?

VC: Williams served better against Muguruza as the match wore on, and I think that she’ll be dialed in against Cibulkova from first ball. It’s a tired refrain, but unlike Muguruza, the diminutive Slovak has struggled in past meetings to get a racket on most of the American’s serves. Cibulkova’s strategy also doesn’t pay as many dividends against Williams; it’s difficult for her to overpower the World No. 1 and, as a result, she’s prone to making a high total of unforced errors. In this match-up, however, she rarely hits the number of winners needed to balance them out.

However, not many people were expecting Cibulkova to still be standing at this point. Her energy in her four matches to this point has been unmatched, while Williams has come out sluggish in each of her past three rounds. She often turns it on late in the tournament, but Cibulkova will be alert and ready to pounce if she doesn’t.

DK: With every round, it only gets harder to upset the 18-time Grand Slam champion, even if her last three matches have gotten progressively closer. Something about the American clicks into a higher plane when she makes it to the quarterfinals, and the Cibulkova’s emotional expenditure just to make this stage may catch up with her. She was two games from beating an off Williams in Miami two years ago, but once the top seed recovered, it was hardly a contest. Either way, it’s been quite a statement from Cibulkova.

One last question: has this been the best match of the year? I say yes; by the third set, both were just about at their best tennis, and the contrast in style made for some truly compelling rallies.

VC: It was comforting that both players ended the match with a positive differential of winners and unforced errors, and despite the fact that it was defined by streaks from both players, it was often high quality. Cibulkova put on a show in the first set, hitting 21 winners on the 32 points she won. They both ended with the same number of unforced errors – 29 – but Cibulkova racked up 12 more winners: 44 to 32. It’s nice to see a player step up and earn a signature win on a big stage, and that’s exactly what Cibulkova did.

This is a match that will definitely merit some revisiting come November.

 

What did you think of Cibulkova/Azarenka? Sound off in the comments!

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