It was a late-night thriller played out in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open as fifth seed Dominika Cibulkova went up against the unseeded Kristyna Pliskova on Stadium 1. Little did anyone expect, this would be a potential Match of the Year, with Cibulkova coming from a set and a break down to prevail after two hours and 50-minutes and saving a match point in the process. Pliskova wasted her golden opportunity to claim her first top-10 win of the year after failing to convert on her chances throughout the match.
Pliskova takes one-sided first set
The underdog made the perfect start to the match as she came out firing, blasting three winners in the opening game while nerves overwhelmed Cibulkova as she threw in a double-fault on break point to gift Pliskova the first break. Everything was going in the Czech’s way as her serves looked invincible, with four consecutive unreturned serves helping her to consolidate the break for a 2-0 lead.
Cibulkova finally got onto the scoreboard with a comfortable love service hold, and she seemed to have found her groove as the Slovakian started to fire cross-court shots constantly, moving her opponent all around the court. Her solid serves gave her the confidence she needed especially after the slow start she experienced, but it still wasn’t enough to find a breakthrough on the return.
Pliskova continued to stroll through the first set as Cibulkova continued to produce countless unforced errors, which include going for too much on her forehands and sending drive volleys straight into the net. This allowed the Czech to earn a second break of serve, opening up a 5-1 lead as she lost just three points on serve in three service games. Serving for the set in the eighth game, Pliskova overcame the pressure and comfortably took the first set 6-2 with an ace.
Cibulkova comes back from the brink and sends the match into a decider
Cibulkova’s troubles continued to haunt her in the second set as she continued to be overpowered by Pliskova, who swung freely and was able to hit consecutive winners at her own will. However, this marked the start of the Czech’s struggles on break points. Pliskova missed a total of four opportunities to make the first breakthrough in the second set in just two return games alone.
Nonetheless, Cibulkova finally got loose in her service games as her forehands looked all over the place with Pliskova’s deadly slices mixing up all the rhythm in the Slovakian’s game. The Czech saved a game point and finally capitalized on her chances to lead by a set and a break, with the finishing line in sight. It was break points galore for Pliskova, who earned another two break points in the seventh game. Standing 3-foot behind the baseline certainly did not benefit Pliskova, and this helped Cibulkova to take the initiative and come up with some peak aggressive tennis to remain in contention.
Facing no troubles on her serve throughout the match, Pliskova stoned out as her first serve percentage dropped drastically to 49 percent, conceding her first break points of the match while Cibulkova stepped up her play when it mattered. The 1.84m tall Czech did not seemingly get affected, though, as she earned another break point in the 11th game. Cibulkova, however, remained composed and ensured that her years of experience mattered as she held her nerves but failed to convert triple set points next, sending the set into a tiebreak. After being so close to defeat, Cibulkova managed to bring the match into a decider after Pliskova’s return abandoned her at the crucial moments.
The Slovakian completes the incredible escape
After losing the second set, Pliskova seemed to have totally lost the plot as she started to be overly-passive, allowing Cibulkova to pounce on her vulnerable second serves with the higher-ranked player grabbing the break in the opening game of the final set. However, Pliskova managed to regain her composure and break straight back, dictating play with her incredible forehands. The Czech had the golden opportunity to take the lead in the third game, earning triple break points, but was once again too passive on those crucial points as she gifted Cibulkova the important service hold.
The match then surprisingly went on serve but it was still Pliskova who is threatening to make the breakthroughs. Cibulkova had to serve to stay in the match down 4-5 and showed her mental strength when she saved a match point and prevailed in that marathon 20-point game which lasted over 12 minutes. She then proceeded to break Pliskova’s serve for just the third time in the evening and attempted to serve out the match at 6-5. However, the Czech narrowly remained in contention after converting on her sixth break point in that game with a bullet-like forehand down-the-line winner. A final-set tiebreak ensued but it was Cibulkova who just got over the finishing line after coming back from the brink of defeat.
Stats Corner: Pliskova fails to take her chances
It was a hard-hitting affair between Cibulkova and Pliskova, and it was shown in the statistics. The Czech, who is best known for her lethal serves, continued to serve amazingly during this encounter as she threw in 18 aces while also winning 79 percent of her first serve points. However, Cibulkova also had decent numbers and was able to escape from trouble on multiple occasions with her solid baseline game.
Although Cibulkova took the win, Pliskova was the player who won more points in this match. The Slovakian hit 41 winners which went along with 38 unforced errors, while 50 errors came off Pliskova’s racquet but it came with an impressive 64 winners in just 170 minutes of play, averaging one winner every 2.65 minutes. Arguably, the most crucial factor which decided the match was the break point conversion rate. Cibulkova was decisive at the critical moments, converting three of her six break points while Pliskova shockingly converted just five from 23 chances. Furthermore, the Czech failed to capitalize on her chances in six different return games, allowing Cibulkova to hold serve despite earning a couple of break points in those games.
Aftermath: Cibulkova struggles throughout the rest of the year
After grabbing this tough win, Cibulkova surprisingly lost to the in-form Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the fourth round but her performance in Indian Wells managed to bring her to a career-high ranking of four after the fortnight. However, she made just two quarterfinals throughout the remainder of the year, eventually ending the year outside the top 25 having failed to defend points in Wuhan and Singapore.
Her inspired performance in Indian Wells edged Pliskova closer to a top-50 debut, which she eventually achieved in May. The Czech reached the final of the Prague Open but an injury sustained at the Jiangxi Women’s Open, with her finger being cut by an actual fan, derailed her season as she ended the year outside the top 60.