MIAMI, FL, USA - With all kinds of pressure on her shoulders - one of the biggest tennis stages in the world, a spot in the Top 10 on the line, three match points against her - Dominika Cibulkova pulled off an inspired victory in the quarterfinals of the Sony Open Tennis on Wednesday afternoon, battling more than two and a half hours to edge Agnieszka Radwanska in an absolute grinder, 36 76(5) 63.
Neither player really found a rhythm on serve early on, with 14 of the first 18 games of the match going against the server - but it was Radwanska who kept her nerve just a little bit better, holding three times (to Cibulkova's one) to build a 63 54 lead, and bringing up three match points in that game too.
But one by one, they were swatted away - Radwanska barely missed a backhand return winner on the first match point, and Cibulkova blasted forehand winners on the next two. Danger averted - for now.
Radwanska got another sniff of victory in the ensuing tie-break, storming out to a 5-2 lead, but again Cibulkova took it up a gear, reeling off five straight points to take it, 7-5, and take it to a third.
Cibulkova held at love and broke in a marathon second game to go up 2-0 in the third, and even though Radwanska caught back up to 2-all, then stayed with her to 3-all, it always seemed like Cibulkova had the momentum - and after holding serve for 4-3 the No.10-seeded Slovak pounced one last time, breaking at love for 5-3 and, after saving three break points, serving the match out.
By virtue of the victory, Cibulkova is projected to make her Top 10 debut on Monday's rankings.
"This win really means a lot to me," Cibulkova beamed in her on-court interview. "It's always tough to play Aga, but I knew I just had to stay aggressive. If you make some mistakes with Aga you still have to stay aggressive. That's the way I play, and it's the only way to beat her. I just had to keep going."
The numbers told the exact same story. Cibulkova not only had a better winners-to-unforced errors differential than Radwanska in the match (-5 to -11) but her numbers were just bigger overall, with 50 winners to 55 unforced errors for the Slovak, and 28 winners to 39 unforced errors for the Pole.
Even more impressive, though, was Cibulkova's inspired play with something so grandiose on the line.
"I knew before the match that this was the match I needed to win to become Top 10," she said. "So it was some more pressure, but I'm obviously very happy with the way I handled it today."