STRASBOURG, France - No.5 seed Dominika Cibulkova has pulled off a remarkable comeback in the first Internationaux de Strasbourg semifinal, snatching an unlikely victory from the brink of defeat to beat No.4 seed Mihaela Buzarnescu 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-1 in the pair's first meeting in 12 years.
The result puts the Slovak into her second final of 2018 following her February run in Budapest, which she lost to Alison Van Uytvanck. She also narrowly avoids Buzarnescu's revenge for that 2006 encounter in the semifinals of the Rimini ITF $50,000 event, when both players were teenagers, which Cibulkova took 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
However, in the majority of high-octane baseline exchanges, it was initially Buzarnescu's clean, elegant hitting and canny patterns of play that would often smother her opponent. In longer rallies, the World No.32 would pull Cibulkova further and further out of court by gradually increasing the angle of her shots to create an open court; and the clarity of thought in her point construction was epitomized by a point in the seventh game of the match, in which she ran the 29-year-old from line to line before finishing with a dropshot.
Such was Buzarnescu's confidence in her execution, though, that the only PhD holder on the WTA Tour would often simply hit the 2014 Australian Open finalist off the court with first-strike tennis. The left-hander's laser forehand down the line was a recurring highlight of her game, paving the way to the first break of serve and coming up trumps on break point for a third.
Neither was Buzarnescu afraid to go after her opponent's serve. Indeed, her stinging returns would frequently burn Cibulkova, who won just 29% of her first service points in the first set and was broken in six of her first eight service games - with Buzarnescu maintaining a 100% success rate on break points up to this stage.
Only a tally of five double faults across the first two sets was a worry for the Hobart and Prague runner-up, and her dominant momentum took her to the brink of the match at 6-2, 5-3. It was then that the course of the match switched abruptly. Cleaning up the errors that had beset her thus far, Cibulkova notched up a rare easy hold; and then a flurry of forehand mistakes from Buzarnescu as she attempted to serve the match out levelled the scoreline at 5-5.
An ensuing topsy-turvy tiebreak saw first Cibulkova take a 3-0 lead, and then Buzarnescu - aided by a couple more ferocious returns - respond by taking five straight points. But it was the WTA Finals champion who ran off the final four points, hammering a forehand putaway to take the match into a decider.
A brilliant forehand pickup from Buzarnescu to hold the opening game indicated that the Romanian had recovered from her wobble - but thereafter, the final set was all about Cibulkova. Imposing herself behind her serve to a much greater extent, the former World No.5 improved to 71% of first service points won.
Whereas the first one-and-a-half sets had seen her shed a litany of backhand errors, particularly on the backhand side, Cibulkova's renewed aggression was matched by increased accuracy: her 10 unforced errors in the first set were reduced to just three in the decider. By contrast, Buzarnescu fell away with alarming rapidity, getting broken in her final three service games, committing 13 unforced errors in the final set and losing 12 of the last 15 points of the match.
Tomorrow's final will be Cibulkova's fourth in total on clay, and will pit the 2009 Roland Garros semifinalist against No.3 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who moved past the injured top seed, Ashleigh Barty, in the later semifinal.