Dominika Cibulkova is a former major finalist, but the larger arc of her career at major tournaments has not been defined by consistency… which is something Jelena Ostapenko can certainly relate to.
Cibulkova has been good enough to make a major quarterfinal (or better) in eight separate years. Yet, Cibulkova has NEVER made more than one major quarterfinal in any single year. A typical year at the majors for the Slovakian is one quarterfinal and three first-week exits. The bright occasional burst surrounded by generally underwhelming performances represents the veteran’s central identity at the tournaments of supreme significance.
Using individual major tournaments to project future major outcomes is a fool’s errand for Cibulkova, as it also is for Ostapenko. The question entering Tuesday’s Wimbledon quarterfinal was if Cibulkova, at age 29, could remain in the groove she had established at the All England Club.
We know when — and how — this groove was established.
Human beings often take motivation — and strength — from instances in which the outside world doubts them in some way. For Cibulkova, this moment was not hard to find. Wimbledon’s decision to seed Serena Williams bumped Cibulkova into an unseeded position from her No. 32 slot. It is easy for athletes to SAY they are motivated, but hard for them to PROVE that a claimed source of inspiration is real and significant. Cibulkova, however, walked the talk. She backed up her anger with fierce and convincing tennis, thrashing 2017 Wimbledon semifinalist Jo Konta in round two and then powering through the next two rounds. She avoided World No. 1 Simona Halep in the fourth round when the top seed was knocked off in stunning fashion by Hsieh Su-wei, but she nevertheless proceeded easily through Manic Monday and into a major quarterfinal. Cibulkova was in the zone; dislodging her from that zone was not going to be an easy task, and when Cibulkova gained a a point for a 4-1 lead in the first set of Tuesday’s match, there was no reason to think “POME!” wouldn’t continue to walk tall in her small physical frame.
Jelena Ostapenko then reminded the tennis community that while she is erratic over the course of a full season in ways which recall Cibulkova’s much longer career, she has a major championship to call forth in difficult moments. Her inner qualities are still being harnessed, but they very much include the resilience which is a prerequisite for greatness.
Ostapenko saved that point for 4-1, then broke back to level the set. Cibulkova stabilized her game and held authoritatively for 5-4. Both players had fundamentally responded to reach other’s haymakers.
Then came Ostapenko’s “perfect 10 formula,” otherwise known as the late-set finishing kick which lifted her above her opponent.
The two close sets in Tuesday’s tussle were defined by Ostapenko’s response to pressure in the 10th game of each set. In the first, Ostapenko was serving to stay in the set. In the second, the Latvian was serving to close out the match. Ostapenko’s serve was so memorably bad in her first-round Roland Garros loss — impotent, inconsistent and inaccurate, a trifecta of terrible characteristics — that a serving renaissance seemed highly unlikely at Wimbledon THIS YEAR. Ostapenko did make the Wimbledon quarterfinals a year ago, and her low hitting zone matches well with grass. She acknowledges that the surface is a good fit for her. On a larger level, the idea of Ostapenko making deep runs at SW19 is not surprising at all. What was — and is — a plot twist is how quickly the Ostapenko serve has improved relative to Paris.
In the 10th game of each set on Tuesday, Ostapenko fired bullets and smothered Cibulkova in a pair of highly convincing holds. In the first set, that hold caused Cibulkova to freeze in her subsequent 5-5 service game. An emboldened Ostapenko swatted the ball to the corners and down the lines while a paralyzed Cibulkova tentatively shoved the ball back to the middle third of the court, where her younger foe was waiting to do damage.
In the 10th game of the second set, Ostapenko shrugged off the immense pressure attached to the reality of serving for her first Wimbledon semifinal. With boom-boom-boom simplicity, Ostapenko’s serve got all the work done for her. She went up 40-0 and was not seriously challenged in a service game which would terrify other professionals.
Ostapenko and Cibulkova both ride the roller-coaster as a general way of being on the tennis court. It’s how much of their match went on Tuesday. One player answered the bell in the 10th game of each set, and that’s the player who will face Angelique Kerber in a delicious semifinal showdown on Thursday.