The 28-year-old Slovakian broke through during an era when teenagers making waves on the tennis circuit was the norm, rather than an anomaly. But that hasn’t been the trend recently, with both the men’s and women’s tours witnessing lots of dominance from players in, or near, their 30s.
Last season though, a 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko stormed to the French Open title, and with Serena Williams absent, the No. 1 spot switched hands multiple times throughout the year implying the winds of change were finally catching up with the WTA.
A 17-year-old Marketa Vondrousova won a title in Biel. A 19-year-old Daria Kasatkina claimed the Premier title in Charleston. A 22-year-old Elina Svitolina picked up two Premier 5 trophies and cracked the top-five. There were quite a few signs that the younger generation was ready to rise.
Cibulkova doesn’t feel 2017 was as transitional as people are making it out to be though.
“I don’t know. I didn’t really feel that way because I think the times when the girls, when I was 16, 17, I was already on the tour and now you don’t see so many players like this,” Cibulkova told Sport360 during her preseason training block in Dubai last month.
“So I would say it’s still more about the older and experienced players, and there are some – one or two, like CiCi Bellis, she’s 17, and she’s I don’t know her exact ranking, but she’s playing really good now and I’m sure she’s top-50, she’s one of a kind.
“I think right now it’s still about the old and experienced players that they still have their time.”
She added: “I was one of the last players who started to play pro in WTA tournaments at a really young age. And I think it became more difficult for these young players.”
The likes of Serena and Venus Williams have destroyed any preexisting notion that tennis players in their mid-30s typically bow out of the sport.
At 35, a pregnant Serena defeated a 36-year-old Venus in the Australian Open final 12 months ago.
Venus is now 37 and is ranked in the world’s top-five.
Does Cibulkova see herself playing at that age?
“No I don’t think so. I don’t see myself playing after I become a mum,” said Cibulkova, who got married to long-time partner Michal Navara in 2016.
“So let’s see how long still I’ll be able to motivate myself and do all this hard work and sacrifice kind of your whole life, so we’ll see. But I’m really looking forward to 2018.”
Motivation was something Cibulkova admittedly struggled with last year. She had a huge 2016, which she ended by winning the biggest title of her career at the WTA Finals in Singapore and cracking the top-five in the world rankings.
The Bratislava-native won four titles from seven finals reached that year. When it was time to start preparing for 2017, she was out of gas and demotivated. She dropped outside the top-20 as a result and is now ranked 26.
“It was another experience for me. I know I’m getting older and everything is more about experience. You need to take a break and you really need to be ready for next season. 2016 was a lot of everything on the court, off the court and in 2017, even when I started to practice during my preseason I felt really tired,” confessed Cibulkova.
“I didn’t feel like ‘okay, let’s do this’, I was really tired, it was really hard for me to go even to leave for the tournaments and to practice. These kind of things can really affect you.
“But it’s a good experience for me and I know if I’m 100 per cent mentally and physically I can do big things so hopefully 2018 is going to be a good one.”
To recapture her spark, Cibulkova did things differently at the end of 2017. She took two full months off then decided to prepare for the new season in Dubai instead of her usual routine of flying to Boca Raton and training at the Chris Evert academy.
For nearly two weeks in December, Cibulkova was sweating it out on the courts of Jumeirah Beach Hotel, immediately following up 90-minute sessions of some serious hitting, with intense circuit training in the gym.
“It’s been great. I’m feeling full of energy and I’m really motivated for 2018. We switched location after I don’t know maybe 10 or more years. In the beginning I was afraid but it’s a little bit easier for us because it’s just a five-hour flight and almost no time difference so it’s great to be here in Dubai,” she said.
Is there anything she particularly dreads when it comes to her preseason training?
“Hard really tough practices on the court are really, really tough, with my coach, like today you saw, it was not easy, but this is something that’s really hard,” she says.
“But when you really focus on something that you want to improve then the time goes so fast. Even if it’s really tiring then you just realise ‘okay, we’re going to play one and a half hour drills’. So when you have this mindset, even the really hard things can go easier.”
Cibulkova is aware that she is now 28 and has been a professional player since 2004. She will be playing fewer tournaments in 2018 to preserve her body, and opted to skip Brisbane last week and instead started her new season this week in Sydney, where she won her first two rounds against Anastasija Sevastova and Elena Vesnina. She takes on ex-world No. 1 Angelique Kerber in the quarter-finals on Thursday.
There are a host of star players who are atypically ranked outside the top-20 at the moment, like Kerber, Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Cibulkova. They’ve all dropped in the rankings for different reasons and will no doubt cause mayhem in the Australian Open draw, which will be revealed on Thursday.
Does her lower-than-usual ranking mean she’s approaching the season differently?
“For me it’s completely different this time. Last time I didn’t want to be there in the preseason. I just didn’t feel motivated enough to go there again and play and work. So right now I feel completely different. I feel like I had my break. I took a longer break. I didn’t do anything for two months and it just really helped me and this is something I needed and I feel 100 per cent motivated again,” says an upbeat Cibulkova.
Serena Williams “absolutely” intends to surpass Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles and believes being a new mother can help her achieve that goal.
The 36-year-old, who gave birth to her first daughter Alexis Olympia in September, decided to pull out of the Australian Open following concerns over her ability to make an impact in Melbourne.
Williams won the last of her 23 Grand Slams Down Under in 2017, defeating her sister Venus in the final when, it would later emerge, she was in the early stages of her pregnancy.
The American former world number one had returned to the court on December 30 at the Mubadala World tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, where she lost an exhibition match against Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open champion.
Despite admitting she was “not where I personally want to be” in announcing her withdrawal from the Australian Open, which starts on January 15, Williams told Vogue she was determined to return to a competitive level sooner rather than later.
“Maybe this goes without saying, but it needs to be said in a powerful way: I absolutely want more Grand Slams. I’m well aware of the record books, unfortunately. It’s not a secret that I have my sights on 25, and actually, I think having a baby might help,” Williams told the February edition of the magazine.
“When I’m too anxious I lose matches, and I feel like a lot of that anxiety disappeared when Olympia was born.
“Knowing I’ve got this beautiful baby to go home to makes me feel like I don’t have to play another match. I don’t need the money or the titles or the prestige. I want them, but I don’t need them. That’s a different feeling for me.”
Williams feels her life off the court with all the challenges of a new mother will only bring a positive influence to her game.
“Sometimes I get really down and feel like, ‘Man, I can’t do this’, it is that same negative attitude I have on the court sometimes,” the American added.
“I guess that’s just who I am. No one talks about the low moments — the pressure you feel, the incredible letdown every time you hear the baby cry.
“I’ve broken down I don’t know how many times, or I’ll get angry about the crying, then sad about being angry, and then guilty, like, ‘Why do I feel so sad when I have a beautiful baby?’. The emotions are insane.”
Novak Djokovic made a resounding return on Wednesday after six months out with an elbow injury, declaring he felt “great” after beating world number five Dominic Thiem 6-1, 6-4 at the Kooyong Classic.
The Serbian 12-time Grand Slam winner was in good form, and full of optimism, after his first competitive outing since losing a Wimbledon quarter-final to Tomas Berdych last July.
“I feel great, I was eager to get onto the court,” he said after playing with a flesh-coloured sleeve on his right arm.
“I had a great opponent, it was a test for me to see where I am, how the work we did pays off on court. It worked pretty well.”
The former world number one, who will be chasing a record seventh Australian Open crown next week, had pulled out of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, raising concerns over whether he would be fit enough to play at Melbourne Park.
“There was a doubt, especially after I pulled out of the first week of the year,” he admitted.
“I personally didn’t know what’s going to happen. We did some treatment and obviously gave it a lot of thought. Luckily for me I’m here and so I’m hoping in the next four, five days everything will go well and I’ll be ready for the Open.”
While pleased at his progress, Djokovic, who has dropped to 14 in the world, admitted he still had work to do ahead of the opening Grand Slam of the year.
“I don’t want to be over-confident, but I’m very, very happy with how it went today,” added the 30-year-old.
“I don’t say I’m at 100 per cent, I can only say that when I get the feel of a tournament. Ideally I would have had another tournament before the start of the Open, but it was not meant to be.
“I’ll take whatever I can — one or two matches here will be good preparation.”
Thiem, who only arrived in Melbourne on Monday night from Doha after four days in bed with a virus, presented only a minimal challenge to the recharged Serb.
“I’m free of fever and healthy again,” the Austrian said. “I’m still jet-lagged and was slow at the beginning of the match. I’ll sleep, eat and train and not do too much. I’ll be fine for the Open.”
Australian Matthew Ebden, back on court after an injury-marred 2017, defeated Marin Cilic 6-7 (3), 6-4, 7-5 in another match at the exhibition tournament.
World number six Cilic won the opener but found his game not quite up to competitive level as Ebden sneaked out the second set and then won a tight third.
Cilic, last year’s losing Wimbledon finalist against Roger Federer, heads into his final practice days for the Australian Open content with his form.
“The most important thing is to feel the conditions, to get comfortable,” he said. “It’s important to find a good rhythm.
“Overall, I’m quite happy with my level. I was feeling the ball well and hitting cleanly from both sides.”
Djokovic with new service reduced motion: 2018 vs. before pic.twitter.com/MtRIAoEfjN
— BreakPointBR (@BreakPointBR) January 10, 2018