With both the ATP and WTA Tour’s suspended for the foreseeable future due to the coronavirus pandemic, we here at LWOT will be looking back at some of the greatest matches of recent times. And one such match was the semifinal clash between Dominika Cibulkova and Agnieszka Radwanska at the 2014 Australian Open. It is a match chiefly remembered as one of the greatest of the Slovakian’s career. But it was also a disastrous defeat for Radwanska.
At the end of their careers, Radwanska held a narrow 7-6 lead in their head-to-head. But that only tells a small part of the story of their rivalry. It should be noted that it was the Pole who won the first four matches between the pair, losing just one set in the process and winning four sets to love, including recording a double bagel in the final in Sydney in 2013. Clearly then, it was a problem match up for Cibulkova, who seemed unable to hit through Radwanska from the baseline.
But later in 2013, Cibulkova avenged her humiliation at the Sydney International, rallying from a set down to beat Radwanska in three-sets in the final in Stanford. Thereafter, the rivalry was transformed with Cibulkova winning six of the next nine against Radwanska, including their final three matches. And most importantly of all, the 2014 Australian Open semifinal, unquestionably the biggest match contested between the two.
The 2014 Australian Open
Radwanska, who had enjoyed a solid 2013 season, entered the first Major of 2014 as the fifth seed, in the same quarter as the second seed and defending champion Victoria Azarenka. She was given an early test by Yulia Putintseva in the first round, but she never looked to be in serious danger of falling at the first hurdle, despite being taken the distance. Radwanska backed that win up with a comfortable victory over Olga Govortsova in the second round, before beating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova from a set down to reach the second week.
There she faced Garbine Muguruza in what proved to be one Grand Slam too soon for the future Australian Open finalist. The Spaniard stunned Serena Williams later that year at Roland Garros, but could offer little resistance to Radwanska, who scored a comprehensive 6-1 6-3 win. And Radwanska bettered that performance in the last eight, where she outlasted Azarenka, who had not dropped a set in reaching the quarterfinals, to claim a 6-1 5-7 6-0 win.
Cibulkova, meanwhile, was seeded 20th and ranked just outside the top 20 at world #24 when she arrived at Melbourne Park, then the only Slam at which she had failed to reach the quarterfinals. She found herself in the same quarter as the third seeded Maria Sharapova, but quickly proved to be the player to watch. She stormed into the second week, picking up dominant wins over Francesca Schiavone, Stefanie Voegele and 16th seed Carla Suarez Navarro, all without losing a set.
The Slovakian then rallied past Sharapova from a set down to reach the fifth Major quarterfinal of her career. There, she beat the eleventh seed Simona Halep for the loss of just three games to secure her place in the last four. And although her path may have looked comparatively straightforward, she did face two Grand Slam champions in Sharapova and Schiavone and one future Major winner in Halep. Perhaps not so straightforward after all.
Coming into the semifinal, this seemed to be a real chance for Radwanska. In 2012, she had come to within a set of winning the Wimbledon title, with her court-craft and guile troubling even the great Serena Williams. But the American’s power ultimately proved decisive, as she emerged a 6-1 5-7 6-2 winner. A year later, Radwanska had returned to the semifinals, but despite being the favourite to capture the title after a string of upsets, she lost to Sabine Lisicki, 9-7 in the third.
But another chance appeared to have arrived in Melbourne, although Li Na, seeded fourth, also remained in contention. But Radwanska appeared to be on a roll and was unsurprisingly the favourite heading into her own semifinal, with a 5-1 head-to-head advantage over Cibulkova and 13 WTA titles to the Slovakian’s three. And whilst Cibulkova had reached three Major quarterfinals and one semifinal, the Pole had reached seven quarterfinals, a semifinal, and a final at Grand Slam level.
But tennis doesn’t care what’s supposed to happen. In the semifinals, on a sunny Melbourne day, Cibulkova annihilated Radwanska. She broke the Radwanska serve in the first game of the match and did not look back. Radwanska got the scoreboard moving in the third game of the match, but that was about as good as it got for the fifth seed. Cibulkova won the next eight games to take an all but unassailable 6-1 4-0 lead, ultimately completing a 6-1 6-2 win.
Cibulkova was relentless from the baseline. Despite her relatively diminutive stature, she was the aggressor throughout, forcing Radwanska back and punishing anything and everything the Pole left short. In truth, it was a humbling defeat for Radwanska, who was made to look something of a pusher, with no answers to her opponent’s aggressive groundstrokes. It was almost impossible to believe that she had double bagelled her opponent just a year earlier.
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Cibulkova proved unable to replicate her superb semifinal performance in the title match, where she lost 6-7 0-6 to Li Na, despite serving for the first set. But that disappointment should not be allowed to detract from what was a magnificent fortnight for Cibulkova and, although she did not reach another Grand Slam final, it did lay the groundwork for future successes for the Slovakian. She would go on to reach three more Grand Slam quarterfinals and win another five WTA titles, including the 2016 WTA Finals despite two round-robin defeats.
Radwanska enjoyed significant successes herself after that heart-breaking defeat at the Australian Open. Indeed, 2015 was surely the finest season of her distinguished career, as she reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, before winning the WTA Finals, also surviving two round-robin losses to do so. A year later, she returned to the semifinals at Melbourne Park. But it is nonetheless hard to escape the feeling that the 2014 Australian Open marked her last and best chance to win a Grand Slam title.
Perhaps coincidentally, both women called time on their careers at the end of 2019. Despite the difference in their on-court approach, they were similar in many ways. Both overcame a relatively small stature to trouble the best in the world in an era dominated by power hitters. Both won the biggest title of their career at the WTA Finals and reached a Grand Slam final. Both could captivate the tennis world when they were at their best.
It is also perhaps true that Cibulkova rather overachieved in reaching a Grand Slam final, whilst Radwanska’s failure to capture one of the sport’s biggest titles was a disappointment. But at the Australian Open in 2014, the outcome was emphatic. For Radwanska, it was a chance missed. For Cibulkova, it was a day in the sun like no other.