Interview | Dominika Cibulkova
The 2016 Katowice Open champion sat down with me to talk about winning big matches, the importance of self belief and being 'a pitbull' on court
By Stephen Higgins | 22 April 2016
When I spoke with Dominika Cibulkova, she had just won the fifth WTA title of her career in Katowice, Poland.
A top 10 player in 2014, and regularly to be found amongst the twenty best players on the planet over her career, the Slovakian has participated in 13 singles finals at the highest level. So do they get easier or harder for her as time goes by?
“It’s not about as you get older, but how many finals you play and in what state of mind are you.’
Domi was certainly thinking clearly on finals Sunday in the Spodek, as she dispatched Camila Giorgi 6-4 6-0 in dominant fashion. That was not the case for the 26-year-old in February, when she lost an incredibly tight final in Acapulco to Sloane Stephens.
‘Right now, today [in the Katowice final], I was really relaxed and I just went to play a good finals. Two months ago, when I played finals in Acapulco, I was really intense and I really, really wanted to win it. And I didn’t win it. I’ve played many finals before so it’s about your state of mind and today I was in a good mood.”
The line “tennis is 90% mental” is thought to have been coined by that original mind games merchant, Jimmy Connors. Serena Williams thinks that figure is around 70%. Whatever percentage you go with, it’s pretty clear that at the highest level, what happens between the ears can make the difference.
This runs true for Cibulkova who impressed all week with her composure and focus between points. It’s an element of the game that the 2014 Australian Open finalist is still trying to develop.
“I’ve had to improve that…to take time between the points and to think about what I want to do. Yes, this is something I really work on and it’s not natural for me to do these things. I knew that if I want to get higher in the ranking, even I was before top 10, I have to do these things and It’s really, really working.”
Incredibly, Cibulkova played her first ITF match all of 12 years ago in Prague. Aged 15, she lost in the second round of qualifiers to the 324th-ranked Darija Jurak. Less than four years later, the Slovakian broke into the top 20 after reaching the final of the Coupe Rogers, taking out the then world no.2, Jelena Jankovic, along the way.
During her time on tour, Cibulkova has beaten seven former or current world no.1s including Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. In those big matches against the game’s elite, self-belief provides a solid foundation for the Slovakian.
'For me, it feels like when I play a top player I know that I have the self confidence that I am such a good player that I can beat them, so this is the first and most important thing. When you are stepping on a court, you know that “I can win this”. It’s not like I’m going on court just to play a match.'
'And second, I just believe in my game and I know that my game when I play really good, when I play at my best, I can beat anybody.'
There is one player that Cibulkova has yet to master after five attempts and her identity comes as no surprise. 'Of course it’s very tough to play against Serena when she has a good day, when she’s serving and it’s really hard to play. But the rest of the players are different.'
While the world no. 38 believes that pre-match tactics are a ‘big deal’ in preparing for an opponent, at times she just worries about her side of the court.
'[Tactics are] important, but sometimes there are certain players that I just go on the court and I focus more on myself, to play my game. [Then] there are certain players, like Giorgi, and I cannot really play my game 100% so I have to play with the tactic a little more.'
Katowice was Cibulkova’s first title since Acapulco in 2014. In March 2015, she decided to finally sort out a long-time issue with her left achilles through surgery. Cibulkova missed over four months of the tour and this break initially provided solace before the competitive fire within her reignited.
'I really enjoyed being at home. It was really nice after so many years. I spent half a year at home and it was like a different life and it felt really good. But I was really missing the competition. I was missing that feeling when you go on the court and you have a stadium like [Katowice] full of people supporting you. There is no better feeling in the world when you win a good match, or when you win a tournament.'
I was present for all of Cibulkova’s matches over the week in Katowice and they wouldn’t be the same without the cries of ‘podj’, ‘pome’ and ‘Domi’ from her boyfriend, and chief cheerleader, Miso. The 26-year-old feeds off the support from him, her team and the fans.
'I’m a really emotional player so if I want to play good I have to be emotionally involved and I have to be like, my coach [Matej Liptak] tell me, "you go on the court and be the pitbull you are!". I want to win every point and I get emotions and that makes me an even better player.'
'There are players and they don’t show emotions. Maybe they are different that they don’t have so many emotions. But there are players like me and this is what I do.”