You can be a fighter to the core, but not have a killer instinct, and according to Dominika Cibulkova, the former comes naturally to her, but the latter requires lots of work to acquire.
The world No5 is renowned for her unrelenting fight on the court, and while she appeared short on that in her 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 defeat to Ekaterina Makarova in the Dubai second round yesterday, Cibulkova says it was her killer instinct that deserted her against the Russian.
The Slovakian No3 seed was up 2-0 in the decider against Makarova, who up until this year had never beaten Cibulkova in any of their previous three meetings. But the Russian snapped her losing streak to Cibulkova at the Australian Open last month, and was able to back that up with another victory over her yesterday.
“It helped a lot, of course, because I never beat her before,” Makarova said of that win in Melbourne. “So this match, when I was coming out and I kind of more believing that I can win, and I knew what to do, how to play, where to go, yeah, I was kind of staying until the end that I was believing that I can beat her.”
Cibulkova is as self-critical as one can get, and she gave a thorough explanation of what went wrong for her during the match.
The 27-year-old said her semi-final loss to Yulia Putintseva in St. Petersburg earlier this month, and both her defeats to Makarova in Melbourne and Dubai, all shared a common problem, and she was planning on fixing it.
“I lost the matches because of the same thing. So I know what I have to work on and this is something I want to get back on my own track – what I was doing last year,” Cibulkova said on Tuesday.
“Last year I won so many three-set matches but only because of this one thing, that I had this killer instinct, I was just really going for more when I was up. And now it’s a different story.
“I’m not that confident and I’m not doing the right thing that I should do. That’s what we’re going to work on, in the practice too. If I was playing good tennis, I wouldn’t get into these three sets, and I’m just losing because I’m not finishing the matches.”
She added: “Fighting is a different thing than the killer instinct in the match. And today I got really frustrated with myself that I didn’t match the end of the match. The last two games (against Makarova) I was really upset.”
Cibulkova, who won her biggest title to date at the WTA Finals last year in Singapore and had a stellar 2016 that saw her win four trophies from seven finals reached, admits that she may look feisty and gritty on court but that going for the kill is something that does not come easily to her.
“You know somebody has the killer instinct and somebody doesn’t. And it’s just me, it’s more that I really have to push myself into this. Maybe it looks different on the court, that I’m happy about it, but it’s something I have to push myself into it and right now I’m not doing it right,” said the Slovak.
Cibulkova was one of three top-five seeds to crashed out on Tuesday, with No5 seed Garbine Muguruza retiring with an Achilles injury while down 1-4 against Kateryna Bondarenko, and No2 seed Karolina Pliskova falling in straight sets to Kristina Mladenovic.
On a chilly night on the fast Centre Court of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, experience prevailed over youth as Caroline Wozniacki passed the tricky opening test of Daria Kasatkina on Monday.
Wozniacki, making her seventh appearance in the Emirates, is the 2011 champion, while Kasatkina, a 19-year-old Russian, who posted two wins over Angelique Kerber within the past six weeks, was making her Dubai debut.
The talented teenager is ranked No32 in the world, and has quickly made a name for herself as a tough opponent with a bright future.
But Wozniacki, who arrived late in Dubai having played and lost the final in Doha to Karolina Pliskova on Saturday evening, had no trouble in adjusting to new conditions and wrapped up a 6-2, 7-5 win over Kasatkina in 90 minutes.
“Obviously seeing the draw, it’s like, well, could have had an easier first round,” the 10th-seeded Wozniacki said with a smile. “She’s a good young player. She mixes up the pace a lot. She kind of tries to bring you out of your rhythm and she has great hands.
“I was really pleased with how I was able to just stay focused out there from the beginning. It’s much different conditions here. The ball is flying. The court is faster than in Doha.
“I didn’t really know how I was going to play to start off with. Generally, I was pleased with my game.”
Kasatkina was also coming off a gruelling week in Doha, where she reached the quarter-finals before falling to Monica Puig in three sets.
The rain disrupted play in the Qatari capital all week which meant players spent hours each day waiting out the showers, and contesting more than one match on the same day.
Wozniacki however seemed less affected by the grind from the week that past and was solid throughout the clash.
Kasatkina was over-hitting her forehand, and looking comfortable, while Wozniacki, a former world No1, looked fresh in her legs, running down balls and moving her opponent around.
The 26-year-old broke serve five times and won 73 per cent of her first serves to advance to a second round against Swiss Viktorija Golubic today.
“It was a little bit difficult to come after Doha, after the conditions there and the rain delays, it was a bit complicated,” Kasatkina told Sport360.
“She’s moving unbelievable for sure, that’s she was No1 in the world. She can put all the balls on the other side, it was very difficult to play against her, especially for the first time.”
Wozniacki was hampered by injuries last season and dropped to as low as No74 in August. But she rebounded by reaching the semi-finals of the US Open and she closed her year with an impressive 20-4 win-loss record.
She is now up to No15 in the rankings and looking to rejoin the top-10.
Before stepping on the court for her Dubai opener, Wozniacki was in the players’ lounge where TV screens were showing a replay of her Doha final from just two days earlier. Does she find it tough to mentally switch from one tournament to another so fast?
“I feel like kind of at the end of last year already I had back-to-backs, and from Tokyo I flew straight after the finals overnight and then landed early morning basically and had to play that day,” she said.
“It’s tough. You kind of want to enjoy a little bit, but you’re playing well. But it is a positive problem to have, I suppose. You keep playing.”
Puig says it like it is
Earlier in the day, Olympic champion Monica Puig came through a tight 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 win over Kazakhstan’s Yaroslava Shvedova.
Puig, who had lost to Wozniacki in the Doha semi-finals last week, needed medical attention for soreness in her lower back but believes she’ll be ready for her second round against No15 seed Caroline Garcia today.
The Puerto Rican world No42 did not hold back when discussing her post-Olympics woes and how she’s working hard to back up that massive triumph in Rio.
“It was a great week for me in Rio, and it was really good, but the fact of the matter is I didn’t back it up afterward,” confessed Puig.
“So right now I’m just trying to get back to feeling comfortable, playing at that level consistently. And, you know, right now I’m doing a great job, I think. I’m working really hard.
“I’m giving my 100 per cent in tennis, and I’m just focused on this right now. This is consuming my whole life.
“I just really want this really bad. So I’m going to do whatever it takes. If that’s training more, if that’s, you know, fixing the little things, it doesn’t matter for me. I really love what I do and I really love playing tennis. I’m just going to work really hard to accomplish some more of my dreams.”
Three seeds were sent packing yesterday with American Coco Vandeweghe becoming the highest-ranked casualty. The No11 seed and Australian Open semi-finalist lost 6-4, 6-4 to her compatriot Alison Riske.
No17 seed Yulia Putintseva, a runner-up in St. Petersburg earlier this month, was shock by Dubai debutante, 17-year-old Cici Bellis 6-1, 7-5.
“I got myself in a bit of trouble in the second set, but I’m glad I got out of it. I just thought to myself, stick to my game plan, just keep steady, I can come back. I can come back against anyone I set my mind to. I’m really glad I got through it,” said Bellis.
The American teenager had to delay the start to her season due to strains to her hamstring and glute, and was playing her first main draw match of 2017.
She is ranked No70 in the world and is the youngest player in the top-100.
“I’m still trying to fit in a little bit, I think, but I think it will come eventually with age and experience. But I think it’s going well,” she admits.
No13 seed Kiki Bertens fell to American Christina McHale 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4.
It’s been a little over a year since Angelique Kerber shook the tennis order and defeated Serena Williams in the Australian Open final to become the first German woman since Steffi Graf to win a grand slam singles title.
She then reached the Wimbledon final, won Olympic silver, won the US Open then took the No1 spot from Williams – all this happened within a nine-month period.
Since becoming world No1 last September, she has accumulated a modest 13-8 win-loss record, including a 4-4 stretch so far in 2017.
The 29-year-old, who is the top seed in Dubai this week but is now down to No2 in the world behind Williams, is yet to find her game this season but it’s worth noting that all of her defeats came against solid opponents.
In the quarter-finals in Brisbane during the first week of the year, Kerber lost to Elina Svitolina, the Ukrainian who had taken out Williams at the Olympics in Rio.
She fell to talented Russian teen Daria Kasatkina in both Sydney and Doha, and was blown off the court by American Coco Vandeweghe in the Australian Open fourth round. Vandeweghe eventually lost in the semi-finals to Venus Williams.
Kerber acknowledges she has not had the best of starts to the season, but is not hitting the panic button just yet.
“My reaction was actually the same, it was not a big deal or not a big drama,” Kerber told Sport360 of her Australian Open exit to Vandeweghe.
“That was the first time I was the top seed (at a major), defending grand slam champion and this is what you have to get used to also. It’s a really long process.
“It’s a new situation, new commitments, new challenges. When I went home, I think when I recognised everything that happened there, I realised that was a really important trip for me.”
The Poland-resident considers Melbourne to be a valuable learning experience, and admits adjusting to her new status as a top player and grand slam champion remains a work in progress.
“I think to get used to everything around, learning to focus, this is what I really would like to reach. And not doing things too complicated, with the things around… that was the biggest lesson,” she explains.
It’s only natural for Kerber to be saying those things. Last year changed a lot for her. Her popularity shot through the roof back in Germany – a country that had legends like Steffi Graf and Boris Becker in the past but where the interest in tennis has declined since those legends retired.
“I think there are a few reasons,” Kerber says of the decreasing attention directed to the sport back home.
“First of all Germany wasn’t showing a lot of tennis on TV, that’s why the interest stopped a bit. Then of course after Steffi and Boris, it was so huge that nobody came after, so there was a big hole. Soccer started getting bigger and bigger, so that’s what changed a bit. But hopefully that now, and also (Sascha) Zverev, it’s getting back a bit better.”
Kerber lost her No1 ranking to Serena after the American beat her sister Venus in the Australian Open final last month.
At 35 and 36, Serena and Venus rebuffed the theory that a new generation was ready to take over and Kerber is in awe of both of them. She didn’t watch the whole final but says she watched the first few games.
“It’s unbelievable – big respect for both of them. They are really both champions. They put so much passion in the sport. With all the ups and downs they also had in their careers, for me it was really an honour to watch the few games. It’s just incredible how they improved and what they’ve done for tennis,” said Kerber of the American sisters, who have won a combined 30 grand slam singles trophies between them.
You’d think that Kerber would be motivated to hunt Serena once again and reclaim the top spot but that is not the priority on the German’s mind.
She says she won’t be following the different scenarios that can take her back to the summit, and that her coach, Torben Beltz, is not occupying himself by counting ranking points and analysing No1 possibilities. Kerber may not seek out the information but she knows if she’s close to getting to the top once again – she can actually become No1 if she wins Dubai this week – someone is bound to let her know.
“I think maybe if it’s the same situation as in Cincinnati (where she was one win away from No1), everybody will be asking me about it,” said Kerber.
“I think this will come or not, but for me it’s not the biggest thing. Of course it’s great to be the No1, but if you play good and stay consistent, you will be one day the No1. So for me it’s not the biggest goal now. It’s more playing well, winning again good matches. It’s just a number before my name, let’s see if I can get the number again but of course it’s a hard way again.”
Kerber is a player who is constantly chasing improvement – it is why she managed to finally fufil her grand slam dreams so late in her career and why she is the oldest first-time No1.
Is there one thing she wishes she can improve dramatically in her game?
“Maybe to serve with 200km/hr,” she says with a laugh.
She also hopes to improve her record in Dubai, where she has won just one match in four appearances in the past.
Kerber does not know why she hasn’t done well here on her previous visits but feels she is only one or two matches away from finding her best form once again.
“I’m practicing really well, so I think the thing is to make the transfer from the practice to the matches,” she told reporters during All Access Hour in Dubai on Sunday.
“That’s what I have to get. I think it’s just one or two matches that can change it because I’m feeling good. I wasn’t feeling well last week in Doha, I wasn’t able to play my best because my body was not 100 per cent. But on the practice courts I’m playing well.”
On Serena Williams
I think Serena is really a respectful person and it’s an honour to play against her. She won everything, she’s a legend, she’s a big champion. She’s fair play and that’s why she is where she is.
On the rising status of young German Sascha Zverev (ranked No18 on the ATP)
I think because he’s really young and he’s already beating the best players in the world. He also has the advantage that his brother (Mischa) was playing and he was travelling with him. I remember him when he was really young and he was always with Mischa at tournaments, I think that’s a big advantage because he knows what happens at tournaments, the parents know, Mischa knows… he has big talent and everybody knows. I’m sure he’ll have big success in the future, I think everybody knows that.
On the WTA Middle East swing in Doha and Dubai
It’s unique here because you come a few days early, you know you have great weather, you’re practicing well, you have a lot of courts and get ready for these two tournaments then go ready to Indian Wells and Miami.
On the impact of her winning the Australian Open last year
It was really big in Germany that I was the first one after Steffi Graf to win a grand slam and I was in all the newspapers and TV. From the day I got back after Melbourne it started getting a little bit bigger.