“You don’t have to be big to be great.” That’s what Dominika Cibulkova has taught us.
‘The little onion’ from Bratislava, the first Slovakian to play in a Grand Slam singles final, could not, and did not, stop Li Na from hurtling towards her first Australian Open title on Saturday night. Having picked up just one set in four previous meetings against the fourth seed, she knew that winning here was just as likely as the Yarra River drying up overnight, no matter how many times she said she had nothing to lose.
Nothing can prepare you for the occasion of being in a Grand Slam final. Except being in one. And the sense of place was perhaps preying on her mind as Cibulkova stepped up to serve, tried to bend her knees lower, pop up higher, and start as strongly as she could against her more than formidable foe. It didn’t go so well; she double-faulted twice, and Li broke.
But with Slovakia watching, the country’s total population just a quarter of the size of Li’s Weibo following alone, Cibulkova stood as tall as her 161cm frame would let her, and battled her way back into the match.
“I really enjoyed it because I wanted to enjoy it from the first moment until the last, you know. And I felt happy, you know, to walk on the court,” Cibulkova said.
Breaking back for 3-3 as Li took her own turn at double-faulting, Cibulkova whirled and twirled, taking advantage of no less than 24 funky forehands from Li, all of which missed the court. Li broke again to serve for the set up 5-4, but again, Cibulkova clung on. Saving a set point, she forced the Melbourne women’s final into a tie-break for the first time since 2003.
And then things went as you might expect. Li relaxed. Cibulkova didn’t win another game.
It was not for lack of trying; Li was simply too good, her backhand carving up the court. Even the wings adorning Cibulkova’s shoes, a gift from Marion Bartoli, couldn’t get her on the end of every ball, so overwhelming was Li’s baseline game.
“After she won first two games, she just, I would say, relaxed. She was more relaxed and she was going for her shots,” Cibulkova said.
“After it was impossible for me to do something and be aggressive because she was just really, really playing well.”
Where the first set had taken 70 minutes, the second took just 27, Cibulkova’s first Grand Slam final ending in a 6-7(3) 0-6 defeat after an hour and 37 minutes.
She didn’t play as well as she had to beat two top-five players, Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska, en route to this final stage. In the main, it was because Li didn’t let her. She also didn’t serve as well. Or hit her forehand, her mainstay, as well.
“Today I can only regret that my serve was not really there – maybe because I felt not a little nervous, but my serve wasn't working,” Cibulkova said.
“Then she could push me from the first balls, and I was under pressure all the times. Sometimes I catch myself running one metre behind the baseline. That's not how I play.
“This is why she was better.”
But every experience is one to learn from, and Cibulkova deserves credit for acquitting herself admirably on one of the sport’s biggest stages.
“It was my first Grand Slam finals and I'm just proud with the way I handle it. You know, I just went on the court. I wanted to play my best tennis. It wasn't easy against her because she was playing extremely well,” Cibulkova said.
“So I'm quite happy.”
Soon after, she got to experience another first, a Grand Slam runner’s-up speech.
“[It’s been a] fantastic two weeks of my life and I think I gonna cry,” she said, a big smile lighting up her face as she talked to Rod Laver Arena and to the world. “This means a lot for our country and I’m happy I can be the one here for Slovakia.”
Her two weeks down under will move her from world No.20 to No.13, she has already doubled her 2013 prizemoney, and she is younger than you’d think.
“I'm 24 years old and already play in Grand Slam finals. I feel like my game is there to challenge the biggest names, you know, to beat them, so why not?”
This won’t be the last we see of Dominika Cibulkova.