Brain Game: Li Vs Cibulkova

Have a look back at Li Na and Dominika Cibulkova's semifinal thriller from the Sony Open Tennis on Thursday night - or Friday morning - but from a statistical perspective.

Published March 27, 2014 12:12

MIAMI, FL, USA - Dominika Cibulkova had found that perfect place in a tennis match where she could do no wrong - and then lost that loving feeling.

Cibulkova lost the first set of her Sony Open Tennis semifinal to Li Na, 7-5, after failing to convert two break points at 5-5. The second set started with four consecutive breaks and then Cibulkova's purple patch began.

Cibulkova remarkably lost only five more points for the second set to win it, 6-2. She then won the first eight points in a row of the third set to have won 24 of the past 29 points to break the match wide open. She continued her great play for a 3-1 lead but after winning seven of the last eight games she would not win another game as Li surged to win the deciding set 6-3 and move forward to Saturday's final against Serena Williams.

The turning point for Li came as she fought off a break point that could have seen her down 4-1 and two breaks of serve in the third set. Li led 40-30 serving at 1-3 but Cibulkova put one of her trademark big forehands right through the baseline to get back to deuce. On the very next point Cibulkova rifled a forehand return to almost the exact same spot that Li left it hoping it was going out - but it was right through the line once again. Cibulkova had broken Li seven times in the match so far and this had all the makings of the final nail in the coffin.

Li controlled the break point rally and approached with a tricky, low sidespin forehand that ran away from Cibulkova's reaching backhand for a timely winner. Li then fired an ace down the middle and forced a Cibulkova forehand error with great depth to get out of the game and climb back into the third set and the tournament.

SAP analytics uncovered the hidden patterns in the match that helped Cibulkova's great run and also what enabled Li to ultimately triumph. The strength of Cibulkova's baseline game centers on her forehand where she crushed 17 winners and only five backhand winners for the match. Combine that with unbelievable footwork and a tenacious attitude and Cibulkova will move into the Top 10 in the world when the new rankings are released next week.

Li's baseline patterns focused on moving Cibulkova as much as possible as Li hit 142 crosscourt groundstrokes and 135 down the line. Cibulkova employed a vastly different strategy as she hit almost two out of three shots cross court (172 cross/91 line) to attempt to dictate the direction of the rallies. Li played slightly further up in the court making contact 24% of the time inside the baseline compared to Cibulkova's 22%.

The evenness of the contest could also be found in the stats as Li won only one more point (85 to 84) of points won in under 10 shots while Cibulkova hit only two more forehands (160 to 162).

Matches like these are all about momentum and with 14 breaks of serve out of 29 games it's about doing everything possible to hold serve. Cibulkova's first serve percentage of 79% may look good but in reality it's probably too high as she is not hitting this ultimate first strike weapon big enough to hurt her opponent. Cibulkova won only 52% (33 of 62) of first serve points and only 5% of her first serves were unreturned, compared to 22% for Li. Overcoming the adversity of a "lights out" opponent will help Li as she battles a dominant Williams who has won the last nine in a row in the rivalry.

Craig O'Shannessy (@BrainGameTennis) is the leading analyst for wtatennis.com throughout the 2014 season, utilizing SAP Data & Insights to uncover the patterns and percentages that dominate the game. Visit Craig's website at www.braingametennis.com for more expert strategy analysis.


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