For the third time in 2014, Li Na and Dominika Cibulkova will do battle in a major tournament as Li beat Caroline Wozniacki and Cibulkova overcame Agnieszka Radwanska to set up a mouthwatering semifinal clash.
Li Na leads the overall head-to-head 6-0 and won their Australian Open final encounter in straight sets, but Cibulkova got close in Indian Wells, pushing Li to three sets, and is clearly taking a lot of confidence from that match.
Watch Li v Cibulkova here:
‘It was really tough,’ Cibulkova said of that Indian Wells encounter, ‘and I was really close. She's a great player but I think I already got the self-confidence that I can beat her. So I'll try to play my tennis.’
Cibulkova’s tennis is proving a potent force in 2014 and today she battled through windy conditions, fought off three match points and overcame the loss of her serve ten times as she defeated Agnieszka Radwanska 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-3. But the diminutive Slovakian was fighting for more than her first appearance in the semifinals of the Sony Open – she was fighting for a place in the top ten for the first time in her career. When she finally won the match and secured her ranking milestone, Cibulkova collapsed flat on her back in joy.
It’s a celebration that’s becoming a familiar sight as Cibulkova continues to solidify her claim to be included in the conversation at the top of women’s tennis, having reached the final of the Australian Open, picked up the title in Acapulco and reached the quarterfinals in Indian Wells before falling to Li Na. Her win today was not the prettiest match of 2014 but it will be remembered as one of the most entertaining, full of dizzying twists and turns as both women struggled to hold serve in the blustery wind. By the end of the match, there had been 19 breaks in 30 service games.
‘It was the wind,’ Cibulkova said afterwards. ‘I had some problems with the toss and it was really disrupting my rhythm on the serve.’
Cibulkova’s ball toss is higher than Radwanska’s and the Pole held three times – twice more than Cibulkova – to lead 6-3, 5-4 on serve. Trying to hold to stay in the match, Cibulkova faced three match points, saving the first with a desperate Hawkeye challenge that confirmed Radwanska had missed a backhand return would-be winner and smacking the second and third away with winners of her own.
‘I still had to believe [in] my game, [that] what I planned before the match is good enough to beat her and I still had to keep going, even if I make some mistakes,’ Cibulkova said when asked about how she stayed aggressive with her back to the wall.
‘In that stage, I knew 100% what I had to do. … For me it was like the only chance I have was just to go for it and I will not regret it.’
Finally holding, Cibulkova hit three consecutive return winners herself to break Radwanska but could not serve out the second set and fell behind 2-5 in the tiebreak before clawing her way back, earning a set point of her own after her volley winner, ruled out by the chair, was shown to be on the line and converting.
After an early exchange of breaks in the third set, both players found some more rhythm on serve but Radwanska’s heavily-taped knee – which hampered her significantly in the Indian Wells final – started to look suspect again and when Cibulkova opened with a perfect lob on Radwanska’s serve at 3-4, the writing was on the wall. The Slovakian player broke to love and served out the match, saving two break points along the way for good measure, to book her spot in the semifinals and in the top ten.
‘It's been something that everyone was asking me about and so I feel like “Finally!”,’ Cibulkova said of cracking the top ten. ‘It's here and I don't know what to say, it just feels great.’
Asked what her next goal was, she joked, ‘Well, I’m not quitting tennis!’
Li, meanwhile, overcame a bad stretch of four games in the first set as she overcame Wozniacki for a rare straight-sets victory against the Dane, 7-5, 7-5. The second seed raced to a 4-1 lead before Wozniacki clawed her way back to 5-5 after Li went through one of her frequent error-strewn patches, but the Australian Open champion gathered herself and broke again, producing her finest game of the set to serve it out to love.
The second set was much more even but although Wozniacki was the first to break, she was also fatally distracted by a bad call as she attempted to serve the set out at 5-3 and Li got on a roll, winning the last four games on the match, finishing by having hit twice as many unforced errors as Wozniacki but more than six times as many winners.
The semifinal will be an encounter between the two players who have won the most matches on the WTA Tour so far in 2014, as both Cibulkova and Li recorded their 20th wins on Wednesday.
‘She's a tough opponent,’ Li said. ‘It'll be a replay of the Australian Open final, but this will be different. The last couple of months we've both improved a lot, and it'll be a very tough match.’