As I took my seat for the ladies singles final at the AEGON Eastbourne International. I reflected that it’s been far too long since I’ve been able to see some live tennis. The warm-up event certainly made me realise what I’ve been missing – a legends doubles match that included past Wimbledon winners Pat Cash and Jana Navotna. Cash in particular was a delight to watch – a natural showman, he certainly ensured that the crowd were entertained, and his volley is still at least as good as anyone playing today. (Out of interest, who does have the best volley of this generation? Gasquet? Mahut? Would be interested to hear suggestions) I found myself wishing that I could have watched tennis in an era when the focus was more on technique than the brutal physicality of today, and this feeling was to remerge throughout the day.
Both Dominka Cibulkova and Karolina Pliskova made a nervous start to the final. Cibulkova served first, and immediately gifted her opponent a break with a raft of unforced errors. Pliskova then proved to be even more generous, offering up 3 double-faults to hand it straight back. But after that false start, a highly competitive first set broke out, with a high quality of tennis. Pliskova, the world number 17, who won a grass-court title in Nottingham last week, proved to be evenly-matched with the world number 21, and 2014 Australian Open finalist, Cibulkova. And, like all good rivalries, there was a clear contrast of styles.
Pliskova is the archetype of the modern athletes who dominate tennis now. Tall, slim, powerful, glued to the baseline and just a bit robotic. She hit relatively few winners, presumably subscribing to the modern school of thought that the player who makes fewest mistakes wins, and attempted to grind her opponent down with baseline rallies, a la Djokovic, rather than use her power advantage to the full. And whether she did well or badly, she showed very little emotion, which made her hard for a fan to connect with. Cibulkova was the polar opposite, and was just more human. She was a little ball of energy, relentlessly chasing down every ball, grunting, fist-pumping and endlessly screaming POME (‘Come on’ in her native language). Her size meant that she couldn’t get the free points on serve available to Pliskova, but as it turned out she didn’t need them, and hopefully inspired girls watching to realise that you don’t need to be 6’ foot plus to be very, very good at tennis.
Both players had solid two-handed backhands, but as the match wore on, it was clear that Cibulkova’s was superior. Her defence was superb and she was also the more ruthless player when it came to finishing off points – when Pliskova dropped the ball short, she didn’t hesitate to go for a winner and usually found the line. On the rare occasions Pliskova ventured to the net, her passing shots were also a joy to behold.
However, Pliskova was still an accomplished player, with a lethal serve, and it took 12 games, lasting almost an hour, to decide the first set. Pliskova had come back from 3-1 down to lead 4-3, but when Cibulkova pulled ahead again to 6-5, she couldn’t hold serve to force a tie-break. A topsy-turvy first set, but a high quality one, which saw 7 breaks of serve in all. Which for me made it very exciting, having watched too many men’s matches that are dominated by 130mph+ serves. Here, even though Pliskova’s serve was a weapon, it was never excessively so, and the unpredictable nature of the match made it engrossing.
Both players did tighten up their serves in the second set though, which was decided by a solitary break in the 4th game. Pliskova rallied from the disappointment of losing the 1st set to star the 2nd on top, but it was Cibulkova who pounced to get the break and then tenaciously held onto it. Pliskova put up a real fight in the 7th game, which must have gone to almost 10 deuces, but once Cibulkova somehow managed to hold on (with yet another huge roar of POME), it was clear that the match was effectively over. Except somebody forgot to tell Cibulkova. She still fought for every point, still hurled herself around the court, putting everything into every shot, and Pliskova dragged her last shot wide, she collapsed to the floor as though she had won Wimbledon.
The final score of 7-5, 6-3 perhaps didn’t quite reflect the even nature of the match, but there was no doubt that the right player won. Cibulkova further cemented her status as a worthy champion with her post-match interview in which she came across as a genuinely decent person. I’ve watched Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep and Madison Keys play before, and maybe Cibulkova and Pliskova are not quite of their calibre, but nonetheless they put on a very entertaining final, and I’ll certainly follow Cibulkova in particular with interest in the future. This is an age where sports stars have become a bit too remote – millionaires with godlike physiques, unerring constituency and polished PR training. Cibulkova, like Wawrinka in the men’s game, just seems to be an ordinary person with an incredible talent. Amen to that.