In a tournament plagued by rain, the locals in Wimbledon Village are sick and tired of water falling from the sky. Yet, in a tale of redemption and renewal, it is as though the raindrops in suburban London have given new life to English lawns… and a spiritual rebirth to a number of female tennis players.
The waters of Mother Nature have become waters of tennis baptism at Wimbledon. The latest Manic Monday at The Championships witnessed victories by the Williams Sisters, and by top-five seeds Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber. Those victories have their place in the day’s collection of stories. However, the images which will endure from the best day in tennis (all round-of-16 matches in both singles draws) came from a quartet of women who will cherish this tournament, no matter what happens Tuesday in the quarterfinal round.
Yes, the powerhouse players advanced to the elite eight at SW19, but Monday belonged to women who don’t expect to remain in a major tournament well into the second week. These four players are all extremely unlikely to win the title. Heck, they’re all long shots to even reach the women’s final this coming Saturday. However, a relative lack of expectations, combined with wilderness journeys of varying lengths, will make this visit to the most famous tournament in tennis an experience these professionals will never forget.
"I was really crying, it was emotional"
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 4, 2016
Dominika Cibulkova was so confident in her grass-court abilities entering Wimbledon this year that she scheduled her wedding this Saturday, the day of the women’s final. Naturally, she’ll reschedule if she wins two more matches, but the larger point is that a long-distance run at the All-England Club was never taken seriously.
Cibulkova hadn’t made a Wimbledon quarterfinal since 2011. She hadn’t made a major quarterfinal outside of the Australian Open since the 2012 French Open. Acknowledged as one of the better ballstrikers on tour, Cibulkova is a pocket rocket. Barely more than five feet tall (5-3, to be precise), Cibulkova nevertheless plays one of the more offense-based games in the WTA. Whereas many players rely on an attritional baseline game, Cibulkova seeks an opportunity to open up the point earlier than many of her peers. Her serve is not overwhelmingly great, but it’s certainly not a liability.
One might wonder why Cibulkova hasn’t enjoyed more success at major tournaments and is merely a No. 19 Wimbledon seed at the prime-period age of 27. Monday against third-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska, viewers — either on television or from a courtside seat — were able to understand Cibulkova in a fuller sense.
So much of her match against Radwanska showcased the best of Cibulkova’s arsenal. She constantly put her opponent on her heels and did not deviate from her signature attacking style. She did well enough on the afternoon to capture the first set; three break leads in the second set, including a match point; and multiple added chances to serve out the match in the third set. Yet, just when she was on the verge of finishing off Radwanska, she’d flinch. She committed her only double fault of the day when trying to serve out the match in the second set. She missed highly makeable shots — ones a pro of her caliber ought to make — when she had the match within her grasp late in the third. At several points in the proceedings, Cibulkova should have put an end to the drama, but prolonged it because of a mistake.
Yet, those mistakes counterintuitively enabled this match to become as special as it did.
Precisely because Cibulkova couldn’t end this match in two sets, she and Radwanska unfurled one exhausting, dazzling, all-court point after another in a delicious third set which featured 16 gripping games, 13 or 14 of them stuffed with highlight-reel content. Cibulkova’s glaring errors were sprinkled into the mix, but the vast majority of points created one of the best sets of the 2016 tennis season.
Radwanska — a snake-bitten player at major tournaments — might wear the unfortunate label of “best active WTA player never to win a major,” but the quality of her longevity in women’s tennis magnified the feat Cibulkova was constructing. Radwanska forced Cibulkova to walk the more difficult path in this match. Pressure exists in the player’s own mind in moments such as this, but the opponent across the net also adds to that internal sense of pressure. Even when Cibulkova broke Radwanska’s serve to take an 8-7 lead in the final set, she hardly felt the liberation of a player who stood on the doorstep of triumph.
Cibulkova trailed 15-30, playing nervous points just as she had when given previous opportunities to secure sweet victory. It was easy just then to expect yet another break back and yet another avoidance of the finish line, but Cibulkova finally attained the clarity needed to take the final step to the quarterfinals. She grabbed a 40-30 lead before losing yet another match point, but she never faced a break point in that game. Outmaneuvering Radwanska one last time, she released a flood of pent-up emotions at the end of three hours of fierce combat.
From 2009 through 2012, Cibulkova was good for at least one major quarterfinal per season, so it’s not as though this latest quarterfinal is aberrational within the course of the Slovak’s full career. Yet, it’s not exactly normal business, either.
Cibulkova’s wedding plans are at least temporarily on hold. Given that this moment of profound professional satisfaction carries with it a prize of 118,000 British pounds, that’s unofficially the best reason in human history to delay a wedding ceremony.
The Cibulkova story was the best story from the women’s tournament at Wimbledon on Manic Monday, but three other women also formed a core part of the day’s events.
The image above is taken from the 2012 Wimbledon tournament. That was the last time Yaroslava Shvedova reached a major quarterfinal.
Entering Wimbledon in 2016, Shvedova carried a No. 96 ranking. She wasn’t supposed to sniff the second week. Yet, there she was on Monday, beating former French Open finalist and Wimbledon semifinalist Lucie Safarova to advance to the round of eight.
Tennis careers — and the matches which comprise them — are decided largely between the ears. Yes, Serena Williams has the greatest serve in the history of women’s tennis, but we get to say that because Serena constantly delivers her thunderbolts in crucial moments of important matches. Hundreds of able-bodied players have the capacity to do something special, but only a select few manage to use the mind to harness the body’s physical gifts.
Shvedova, back in 2012, appeared to be a player with top-10-level talent, but the mind didn’t get out of the way of the body. She came to England this summer as obscure as she’s ever been in her career. This out-of-the-blue quarterfinal is a reminder of unfulfilled seasons for the citizen of Kazakhstan, but it’s also a testament to the virtue of persistence. Moreover, it shows that talent — while perhaps unaccompanied by results for long periods of time — still exists within all of us, waiting for its fullest expression.
Shvedova best days could have been behind her, but at age 28, she has given herself reason to believe that her career still has a few golden moments left.
Five years ago, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova engaged Francesca Schiavone in an enthralling and supremely tense French Open quarterfinal, narrowly losing in three sets. Not quite 20 years old in June of 2011, Pavlyuchenkova — Pavs for short — offered the distinct impression she’d be heard from on tour for many years to come. Yet, fitness has been an obstacle for the Russian. She made the 2011 U.S. Open quarterfinals but did not return to a major quarterfinal since that September in New York. Like Shvedova, Pavs came to Wimbledon Village with a lot of hopes, but few expectations.
Monday, her fluid hitting — impossible to miss whenever she plays — resurfaced in all its glory. Pavs easily brushed aside a 2015 quarterfinalist, CoCo Vandeweghe, to rediscover that quintessential quarterfinal feeling.
Pavlyuchenkova turned pro when only 14 years old, in December of 2005. She has therefore been a tennis pro for more than a full decade. She’s given her young life to tennis. Still in what would loosely be called the “middle-age” years for a professional, her career can author new chapters of success. This tournament offers a powerful word of encouragement to Pavs: It’s hardly too late to make good on her immense potential.
The final story in our collection from Monday at Wimbledon might be the sweetest: Elena Vesnina, a pro since 2002, made her first major quarterfinal ever (in singles) at the age of 29. She beat doubles partner Ekaterina Makarova, 9-7 in the third (just as Cibulkova beat Radwanska by the same score; she will meet Cibulkova on Tuesday), to claim a personal piece of history.
So many years of striving. So many years of hoping against hope. So many years of traveling the globe in the search for relevance, improvement and achievement. Elena Vesnina — like Cibulkova, Shvedova and Pavs — has given over a decade to the grind of life on the professional tennis circuit. If she does nothing else as a singles player, she has this accomplishment to savor forever.
The Williams Sisters, Kerber and Halep will receive ink in due time, don’t you worry. Before Tuesday’s women’s quarterfinals, however, appreciate the four less-heralded occupants of these eight singles slots. A Slovak, a Kazakh and two Russians have forged the kinds of memories which give life to Wimbledon and the other major tournaments.
The historians will most centrally remember the events of the next few matches, especially the upcoming Championship Saturday. Yet, 128 women come to the majors in search of something. Not everyone will win the title, and success can be found at different levels.
Dominika Cibulkova, Yaroslava Shvedova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and Elena Vesnina have — by any reasonable measure — achieved a fully successful fortnight at The Championships.