Sporting Life

Small Cibulkova's big heart helps her stand tall

Dominika Cibulkova has the fine manners of a tennis player but the hardy spirit of a pugilist. Think of her as a brawler in a rectangular ring. Last night at the Singapore Indoor Stadium the delightful Slovak bounced lightly on yellow shoes, tossed her hair and shadow-played in the corner. Then she scrapped and scuffled and soon one thing was clear: If her sport had weight and height categories, she'd be untouchable.

Cibulkova is only 161cm in a field that is an average of 176cm but she is capable of some serious punching. Last night she hit 40 winners to Angelique Kerber's 34 which only proved this minor point: The Slovak world No. 8 looks like David but she evidently thinks that she's Goliath.

Over two hours on a Sunday, the short Cibulkova almost spun a tall tale. She was a little "too excited" in the first set but in the second bullied the world No. 1 so completely that a casual spectator would have been unsure who the dark horse was. Eventually the German, who won 7-6 (7-5), 2-6, 6-3, was too solid and the Slovak too errant, but a crowd had been delivered its entertainment.

The match was lively and loud as Cibulkova hit the ball fiercely and Kerber ran for it furiously. These were tired athletes at the end of a long year, but they stretched themselves because their competitiveness wouldn't allow anything else. Pride is a beautiful thing and theatre was the result. Lines were hit, volleys lunged for, drop shots sliced, breaks exchanged and a rival applauded. Appropriately for the WTA Finals, all of tennis was on show.

In a statistically obsessed age, much of Cibulkova can be revealed in numbers. We know she has won seven career singles titles and - according to the 23 matches SAP has data for - sprints an average of 1.57km per match. Yesterday, it seemed double. Using tennis' most basic arithmetic we also know that she collected 34 unforced errors yesterday to the German's 32.


ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

We ... are anyway always grateful - especially in slightly undersized Asia - for athletes who prove that there is room for every physical type. The best advertisement for sport, after all, is always its equality.

But what defines Cibulkova is her fervour and there is no figure for that. Ardour can't be calculated but it can be felt or even heard. In every grunt, for instance, lies her ambition.

Her effort is her attraction and at her best she resembles a gleeful and lit stick of dynamite. It hardly hurts either that she's been handed some intense DNA. In a fine interview with the WTA's Courtney Nguyen this week, Cibulkova spoke amusingly of how her parents don't often travel together to her matches because they "sometimes stress each other out and make each other even more nervous at my matches".

In a grim world the grinning Slovak is instantly likeable. We naturally lean towards such underdogs and are anyway always grateful - especially in slightly undersized Asia - for athletes who prove that there is room for every physical type. The best advertisement for sport, after all, is always its equality.

But to turn Cibulkova into a cliche would be careless. Most small players tend to compensate for lack of muscle and long levers with speed of foot and of course Cibulkova is quick. Even her dogs are terriers.

But she's different because she plays a surprisingly violent and risky game and even admitted the other day that she has to caution herself "not to be too aggressive". For instance, she may be 12cm shorter than Kerber, but yesterday her forehand at 72kmh was 7kmh quicker than the German's and her backhand at 68kmh was 3kmh speedier.

The Slovak still has at least two matches left and people should come and watch her because she's audacious but also a picture of persistence. Giving 100 per cent is one of sport's dullest phrases but not when it comes to her. Because Cibulkova at sweaty work can turn a platitude into a hymn.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2016, with the headline 'Small Cibulkova's big heart helps her stand tall'. Print Edition | Subscribe