Serena Williams’ exit on Sunday was followed by Maria Sharapova’s on Monday morning. In yet another major upset of the tournament, the diminutive Dominika Cibulkova surprised the fancied Russian with a 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory. With this win, Cibulkova has marched into the quarterfinals. In 2009, she made it to the semifinals of the French Open and followed her superior performance in later years, to reach quarterfinal stages of 2010 US open and 2011 Wimbledon tournaments. Her best performance in the Australian Open, to date, is reaching the fourth round in 2009. In her defeat at the hands of Cibulkova, Maria Sharapova would certainly have recalled her quarterfinal match at the 2009 French Open, where it was the same Cibulkova, who prevented her entry into the last four at Roland Garros that year. Cibulkova’s other credible performance was in the 2012 French Open, where she reached the quarterfinal for the second time, after beating the world no. 1, Victoria Azarenka in straight sets. But the Australian Samantha Stosur came in the way and denied Cibulkova a place in the semifinals.
This year at Melbourne Park, Cibulkova has been seeded no. 20, though her ATP World rank is a lowly 86. Dominika Cibulkova has been recognized as woman player with lots of energy and an aggressive style, full of speed and power. Her repertoire includes forceful ground strokes, which are difficult to play. She is also known to use swing volleys and her backhand is powerful as well. She takes the opponents’ return on the rise, engage them in long rallies and then surprise them with perfectly executed drop-shots. She is often seen displaying amazing agility and court coverage, as her shorter stature lends her a higher lower-body strength.
On Rod Laver Arena on Monday morning, Maria Sharapova had no inkling of any surprise elements, as she completely dominated Cibulkova in the first set. Firing 11 winners to Cibulkova’s 3, Sharapova was clearly on course, as she took the set 6-3 in 39 minutes. The hapless Cibulkova looked completely outplayed by the Sharapova’s controlled aggression. No one watching that match would have put his/her money on Dominika Cibulkova.
Then, in a jiffy, the game completely changed. In a sudden surge in second set, the Slovakian 20th seed raced to a 5-0 lead as Sharapova made too many unforced errors. Cibulkova could have closed the set, had it not been for her bubbling enthusiasm that she couldn’t control and allowed Sharapova to close the gap 4-5. Then the 24-year old Slovak held her serve to win the set 6-4. In the third set, the composed Cibulkova dominated the proceedings and applied better control, as the now wayward Sharapova continued to commit one unforced error after another. The score line of 6-1 in the final set, completely justified Cebulkova’ superiority.
Maria Sharapova’s defeat on Monday is not merely on account of her error-prone game in second and third sets. This way, one takes the credit away from the Slovak girl, who played inspired tennis in the later stages of the match. In a run up to the fourth round this year, Cibulkova had not lost a single set, until Maria Sharapova won the first set from her on Monday. Many tennis critics have called Cibulkova, a pocket-rocket because she stands only 5’3”, a height too short from tennis standards. It was fascinating to see the two girls fighting it out but over 10 inch difference in their heights, made for a curious sight on the court. Regardless, Dominika Cibulkova played a far better game, in spite of her height and outplayed Sharapova in the end.
With Serena and Maria gone, the women’s field in the year’s first Grand Slam has become wide open. Victoria Azarenka, who breezed through to the quarters on Monday, looks the most likely winner this year. But you never know!!