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Sporting Life

Underdog Cibulkova rises to produce highlight of her career

Hyaaah is the cry of the underdog. Hyaaah grunts Dominika Cibulkova on Sunday night. Must be a Slovakian war cry we don't know about. Hyaaah she loudly exhales at the WTA Finals as she levitates and then hits a forehand with every ounce of weight and every piece of confidence and every bit of ambition and desperation she owns. This is no talent in miniature.

Of all the images Cibulkova leaves behind during her 6-3, 6-4 defeat of Angelique Kerber, the racket flying from her hand in the end, her father crying, the running to the baseline after changeovers, the smelling of new tennis balls, it's the forehand in the final which lingers like the smell of cordite.

She pummelled forehands in the first game, battered them in the second game, and hammered them thereafter. All came with a Hyaaah. When the first set ended, it was with a forehand cross-court winner. Others went down-the-line, over the hardest and highest part of the net. Kerber ran, she tried and then she said in exhausted admiration: "She was going for it. From the first point till the last one."

Cibulkova is the sort of person to have by your side in a bar fight. Always she is underestimated. Always she moves in, like yesterday when she played 40 per cent of her shots from inside the baseline to Kerber's 13 per cent. Always she's a big puncher, like yesterday when her forehand flew at 115kmh and Kerber's at 104kmh. She played not with hope but only audacity. And a Hyaaah.

The German usually presents herself as an efficient figure of reliable engineering. Her game has superior parts, but only Cibulkova's game was well tuned yesterday. The Slovak's first serve percentage was 83, the German's 55; the Slovak hit 28 winners, the German 14; the Slovak collected 14 unforced errors, the German 23. Kerber looked tired; Cibulkova has not met the word.


ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Cibulkova (above) pummelled forehands in the first game, battered them in the second game, and hammered them thereafter. All came with a Hyaaah.

The Slovak had the right equation yesterday, a perfect sum of consistency, intensity, risk, emotion. People will say that through the year you can't play like that every day. But who cares if you can do it on the last day of the WTA Finals?

The Slovak won everything last night - games, sets, trophy, money - but mostly admiration. Finally, the Singapore Indoor Stadium was passably full, just in time to offer a player the raucous applause she deserves. To those who view tennis only through its well-known stars, Cibulkova was a revelation. Boy, she can play. No, this woman always could.

If there is a single word that fits this champion it is "brave". Because the underdog in any sport is always brave because she gives herself a chance when almost nobody does. Too small they said of Cibulkova when she was young. Nice player but only 1.61m.

But the underdog has to have faith, has to believe - "I don't care what people think," she said - has to wear defeat, has to keep pushing. Yesterday she did, and won, and said: "I'm glad I can be a motivation for people who don't see just the big girls winning the big tournaments."

The other day, literature's new lord, Bob Dylan, told The Telegraph that "everything worth doing takes time. You have to write a hundred bad songs before you write one good one". Cibulkova has played 640 matches on Tour before she produced her most memorable composition and it came against the world No. 1. The 1.61m underdog had risen to meet her moment.

After the match was done, Cibulkova changed into pink shorts and flip flops and sat poised at the press conference. The Hyaaahs were done for the year. Earlier, after the last point, Kerber sat sprawled in her chair on court, defeated and drained after a brilliant year. Of all people in the stadium, perhaps she could best understand Cibulkova's joy. Who else in 2016, after all, knows more about fairytales.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2016, with the headline 'Underdog Cibulkova rises to produce highlight of her career'. Print Edition | Subscribe