Monday, 31 October 2016 11:35 AM GMT
What's next for Cibulkova?

With two matches - and two defeats - under her belt at the WTA Finals, Dominika Cibulkova just wanted to find a way to record a victory before leaving Singapore in her debut at the exclusive event.

A few days later, she would be crowned its champion.

The diminutive Slovakian has always been a fierce and never-say-die competitor in women’s tennis, but the heart she showed on court during her successive wins over Simona Halep, Svetlana Kuznetsova and world No.1 Angelique Kerber launched her into a new stratosphere.

It also made her the winner of the 2016 WTA Finals, the biggest title of her career.

In a year that has belonged to Kerber, the tournament appeared to be hers to take. The world No.1 had gone undefeated in group play (while Cibulkova was 1-2), and on Saturday night she mopped the proverbial floor with defending champ Agnieszka Radwanska in convincing fashion, 6-2, 6-1.

Sunday night, however, was a night when Cinderella’s slippers fit perfectly on the feet of Dominika Cibulkova - and they came in the form of neon orange and yellow tennis shoes.

Fearless against Kerber in the final, she fell to her back when a final ball fell on her opponent’s side, courtesy of a netcord. It was her 28th winner of the night, compared to Kerber’s 14.

She had to be twice as good as the world No.1 and – serving at nearly 85 percent – she was for nearly 80 minutes, winning 6-3, 6-4.

What does this mean for Cibulkova moving forward? And for women’s tennis in 2017?

It’s hard to say. An Australian Open finalist in 2014, Cibulkova was already known to be a dangerous lurker. But now she is a Top 5 resident, and will head into the Australian summer in January with a spark behind her having qualified late this autumn for Singapore, making the final in Wuhan and capturing the title in Linz two weeks before the season ender.

Her approach against Halep, Kuznetsova and Kerber was singular: Be aggressive. It’s a formula that works for her, particularly when her game is on. She throws all of her 5-foot-3 frame into the ball, her sweat-dampened ponytail whipping round her body with every stroke.

“She played like a Finals veteran tonight,” said former WTA player Alicia Molik on the international broadcast.

Cibulkova is a veteran, after all. She’s 27 and now has won eight career titles, with four of them coming in 2016 – the most of any player on tour for the year. But for her there is more to accomplish.

“I think there is another challenge for me,” a reflective Cibulkova told a packed media room after her win. “I have adrenaline and all the emotions. I feel like, ‘OK, let’s go to the next season.’ … I really want to do more. Now I believe in myself that I can really be even better than this.”

It’s a scary notion: A confident Cibulkova. She had Achilles surgery in the spring of 2015 after the injury had left her constantly frustrated and worried. Her run to the Wimbledon Quarter-finals - which included one of the matches of the season against Radwanska - had London tabloids screaming with headlines over the fact that she might have to delay her wedding, which was scheduled for the same Saturday. Instead, she would make it in time. 

But Domi, now a wife and now healthy, has come through the sort of maturation process that we’ve seen in Kerber, or even the likes of Victoria Azarenka or Radwanska, who is still chasing her first major. Belief can take a little engine very far, and Cibulkova is now brimming with it.

“It’s a big thing now in my tennis that I work with a mental coach,” said Cibulkova, noting one of the keys to her change. “On the court I put a lot of emotions, and emotions affect me. This is something I started to learn how to deal with and not let myself down. I just stay focused.”

The Friday night before the WTA Finals began, Cibulkova took to the stage at the Marina Bay Sands hotel and was awarded the tour’s “Comeback Player of the Year” award. She was emotional and proud, staying much longer than any other of the players at the gala dinner to enjoy herself, chatting away with her team, clad in a sleek dress and high heels that look dangerous even to walk in.

This appeared to be her crowning moment, the Miss Congeniality award for a “pocket rocket” player who had had a standout season by her standards and was just happy to be here. And then she flipped the script. Nine nights later she was holding the Billie Jean King Trophy above her head, Monica Seles clapping encouragement just beside her.

A year ago she was already on holiday in the Maldives during this week. This year, she was crowned as the WTA’s season-ending winner.

“I don’t doubt myself this year at all,” she said. “I’m not saying I was coming to this tournament to win it, but when I was so close before the finals, I was convinced that I can beat Angie today.”

And she did.