Barely Breathing: Dominika Cibulkova and the Choke Which is Not One

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Dominika Cibulkova lost a tough match to Serena Williams yesterday, but not for the reasons you would think.

Long after the last point of a match is won (or lost), it is unlikely to be remembered by its combatants’ first serve percentages or backhand errors. No, in the immediate aftermath of a match, especially at a big tournament like the Sony Open in Miami, how a match is remembered largely depends on how it is framed by fans and media. Was it a tension-filled epic, or was it an inconsequential blowout?

Unfortunately, tennis matches are not remembered through such a clean-cut binary. There is a third, shame-based category known as “the choke.”  Once reserved for a tear-stained Jana Novotna, the choke has come to more broadly encompass any and all matches during which a player loses from a winning position. While a true choke knows no gender bias (according to Tennis Channel, three of the top five “greatest” chokes happened during men’s matches), the supposedly more “hormonal” sex has been assigned the greater concentration of “chokeworthy” matches over the last several years.

Can one then classify yesterday’s fourth round encounter between top seeded Serena Williams and Slovakian dynamo Dominika Cibulkova as a choke? That Cibulkova, far from a notorious closer, lost the match from a set and 4-1 up would imply at least a numerical case of neck constriction.

But in order to properly “frame” this match, it needs to be made clear what a choke is and is not, and we need look no further than Cibulkova herself for a relevant historical precedent.

Exactly one year ago, at the exact same tournament in the exact same round, Cibulkova also had the top seed, Victoria Azarenka (then undefeated in 2012) on the ropes. Taking advantage of a flat, uninspired opponent, the Slovak was punching well above her weight class to outstanding effect, redlining her already aggressive game to take the World No. 1 within moments of defeat.

Yet, when twice given the opportunity to serve out the match, she froze. Throwing in consecutive double faults, Cibulkova did not leave the door slightly ajar. She hammered at its hinges until she had broken it down herself. She would recover to play an exciting third set after losing the second in a tiebreaker, but the result was a foregone conclusion. Azarenka had been allowed to believe she could win and Cibulkova had choked away the chance to snap the Belarusian’s winning streak.

Fast forward to yesterday, and it was a very different story. Yes, Serena was flat for a set and a half, but flat in the “two winners, eighteen unforced errors” sense of the term. Where Cibulkova was gunning for outright winners against Azarenka a year ago, she was playing Williams tough enough for the American to make the mistake. This was not a case of one opponent outplaying the other only to become tentative, the purest definition of a choke. For Cibulkova, this was the athletic equivalent to a participation grade. She had shown up, and was being rewarded for doing so.

But down an early break in the second set, Serena Williams went from bad to better. She started moving her feet and stopped spraying the ball to dramatic effect. While she showed marked improvement, the top seed did not begin playing at a superhuman level, the kind we’ve seen from Williams over the years when her back is to the wall. She raised her level just enough to make what had been an embarrassing steamroll into a competitive match.

A competitive match, evidently, was not what the Slovak had signed up for. Not having been asked to play anywhere near her best until two games from the finish line, she was unable to ramp up her game in the same way Williams had done almost involuntarily. Stuck in third gear, she had no answers for the sleeping giant she had accidentally awoken and lost 6-2 in the final set.

So, did she choke? Not in the traditional sense. The form that took her within points of upsetting Serena pales in comparison to the brilliant ball bashing that nearly took out Azarenka a year ago. Cibulkova’s fire did not burn out at the last minute, because it was hardly there in the first place. However, a giant-killer type like Cibulkova knows the intensity needed in order to defeat a Williams or an Azarenka. Even if she had not been at her best the entire match, the time to raise her level came when she was serving for 5-2 in the second.

Instead, she remained static, and in a way, that can be equally disappointing.

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