Underdog Cibulkova overcomes the odds
After stunning win, 'Pocket Rocket' now believes she belongs in the big time
As a kid, members at her tennis club wrote her off because of her small stature.
After losing the 2014 Australian Open final, she was beset by injuries, culminating in surgery on her Achilles tendon last year, which saw her slip to 66th in the world as recently as February.
When the 1.61-metre Dominika Cibulkova made it to the WTA Finals singles final last night, the 27-year-old was still very much the underdog against world No. 1 Angelique Kerber at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
But the Slovak has developed a habit of overcoming the odds, and it was on display once again when she stunned the German, and the world, claiming the biggest prize of her career with a scintillating brand of tennis.
"When I was younger, it was something that motivated me to go forward. I was stubborn and brave with my height," she said.
"After I started to play big tennis, I didn't care what people thought.
"Having taken one set off Angelique earlier this week, even though I lost in the group stage, it gave me confidence I can beat her, that my game is good enough to beat the world No. 1.
"I was feeling it from the first point until the last point."
Boy oh boy, did the small girl play big tennis last night as she dominated the 1.73m Kerber for 76 minutes, a victory that not only vaulted her to world No. 5, her career-best singles ranking, but also saw her pocket US$2.054 million ($2.86m).
Right from the start, Cibulkova went for broke, finding winner after winner as she broke Kerber's first service game and raced into a 3-0 lead.
She was unruffled when Kerber broke back to get the game back on serve at 3-2, conjuring up another break immediately, when the 28-year-old German dumped her backhand into the net, before taking the first set 6-3.
Nicknamed Pocket Rocket, Cibulkova was just a ball of energy as she covered every inch of the court. Even during the breaks, she appeared to be restless, tip-tapping her feet to the background music, springing up at the earliest opportunity.
At 3-3 in the second set, an unrelenting Cibulkova forced Kerber to send a forehand long to go 4-3 and a break up.
It was not until she had two championship points at 40-15 on serve in the 10th game that the underdog felt any nerves.
She double-faulted for the first time on the first match point, struck a forehand long on the second, hit an open forehand into the net on the third, before clipping the net cord for the winner at her fourth attempt to win the Billie Jean King Trophy.
"I realised this was it, I put the wrong emotions and thoughts in my head," said Cibulkova.
"Angelique played a good rally in the second. But I stayed really strong mentally. Even after she had two break points, I was still in the game. Even after that third match point missed, I don't miss this forehand, I stayed calm and focused on my serve and what I want to do next.
"On her break points, I just hit unbelievable winners from the forehand.
"Yeah, I got a bit lucky on the match point, but I think you get lucky when you deserve to get lucky."
It wasn't just luck, but lots of hard work put into rehabilitation and regaining her form, which saw her win this year's Katowice Open, the Aegon International Eastbourne and the Generali Ladies Linz to qualify for the WTA Finals for the first time.
In the process, she was named the WTA Comeback Player of the Year.
After losing her first two group matches here to Kerber and Madison Keys, Cibulkova won the WTA Finals the hard way as she defeated Simona Halep in straight sets, before taking down an in-form Svetlana Kuznetsova in three sets in the semi-final.
Now, she finally feels like she belongs among the game's elite; with a 53-21 win-loss record that is second only to Kerber's 63-18.
"I never saw myself as such a great player, a consistent player, somebody who could be in the top five. Right now, I don't doubt myself anymore," said Cibulkova.
"I don't see it as expectations now that I'm in the top five. I see the next season like another challenge.
"I want to do more. Now I believe in myself that I can be even better than this."