For most of February this year Dominika Cibulkova was ranked #66 in the world. Hampered by an injury for five months of 2015 her ranking had suffered badly. Eight months later and the Slovakian is up to a career high eighth in the world and on the cusp of making the Tour Finals in Singapore. In a year where tennis has been searching for positive narratives, how is it that her marvellous rise has gone largely unnoticed?
Last weekend Dominika Cibulkova competed in her second tier one level WTA final of the year in Wuhan. Greeting her on the other side of the net was a formidable looking Petra Kvitova. Formidable was exactly what she was. The former Wimbledon champion battered Cibulkova in two brief sets. Nevertheless, the fact that Cibulkova was in the final of a WTA Premier 5 event illustrates her improvement this year.
Advancement to WTA finals has been a regular occurrence this season. The Slovakian has reached five, with at least one on all three major surfaces. In May she reached her first ever Premier Mandatory final in Madrid. Her runner-up spot there was sandwiched between titles in Katowice and Eastbourne. The remaining final triggered her return to the top #50 when she lost to Sloane Stephens in Acapulco in February. It comes as no great shock then to see her with a single digit number next to her name in the WTA rankings for the first time in her career.
Given the frequency of her WTA final appearances this year it is bizarre how little media attention she has received. Madison Keys, the player currently ranked above Cibulkova, has won two less finals. Garbine Muguruza, Agnieszka Radwanska, Simona Halep and Svetlana Kuznetsova, all ranked above Cibulkova, have also reached less finals this year. In fact, the only player to have made more is Angelique Kerber. Why is it then that those five names are more well-known and freely discussed than the Slovakian?
Dominika Cibulkova’s Missing Major Title
Perhaps the biggest problem she faces is that she is still seeking that mainstream breakthrough trophy. It is one thing to win WTA events in Katowice and Eastbourne but to achieve global recognition she needs a Grand Slam title or at the very least a Premier Mandatory. She does have a Grand Slam runner-up trophy in the cabinet. In 2014 she lost to Li Na in the Australian Open final. Her latest loss in the Wuhan final means she now has four final defeats at Grand Slam and WTA tier one level.
Her record in those finals is disappointing at best. Across the four she has won just seventeen games, failing to win a set. The problem with tennis is that, with it’s multitude of stars, you have to be winning big titles to stand out. Instead, Cibulkova is suffering heavy defeats in finals, making her forgettable to your average tennis fan.
The Forgotten Member of the Top Ten
A further issue in the current WTA climate is that she is a bit of a floater in generational terms. The top ten predominantly consists of two groups; established top five regulars and dangerous prospects. Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska largely make up the former. The latter consists of Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza and Madison Keys. These are the two groups which garner the most media attention either through their success and longevity or their future hype.
Dominika Cibulkova meanwhile falls in a similar band to Carla Suarez Navarro. Unquestionably talented, consistently seeded at slams, but majorless and less commercially recognisable. What separates the two on a more memorable basis is their technical skills. The Spaniard’s elegant one-handed backhand easily distinguishes her from the rest of the WTA tour. Meanwhile Cibulkova’s style is more mainstream. Her offensive baseline style built around speed and agility is solid but conventional. Whilst undeniably effective in it’s own right it is forgettable among the swarm of similar WTA styles.
These factors combine to condemn Dominika Cibulkova to the second rung of tennis stardom. The potential is there. She’s reached big finals and is currently performing somewhere close to her peak. Yet at the moment she is simply not memorable enough. The reason she is often overlooked is that, despite her ranking, she is yet to fully convince that she can become a Grand Slam champion.