“I’m here, and I’m ready to talk,” sighs World No.4 Dominika Cibulkova. Her exhale carries a familiar focus, an intensity that the 2016 WTA Finals champion and 2014 Australian Open runner-up brought to each match she played, and every interview she gave.
Cibulkova is at home in Bratislava, having spent the evening in the garage - working on something with her husband. When a poor signal precludes a WhatsApp connection, she suggests switching to mobile. Seconds later, she calls back - with all the alacrity that took her to eight WTA titles and into the second week of 10 major tournaments.
“When I started to play tennis, people would tell me, ‘No, Domi. You are too little,’” she recalled in a phone interview on Friday. “It was something I was always hearing, and makes what happened in my career all the more unbelievable.”
Cibulkova reached the pinnacle of her sport with a tenacity that transcends the tennis court. She combined the power and athleticism of junior contemporaries like Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki – along with her own inimitable exuberance - to become the first of the trio to reach a Grand Slam semifinal at the 2009 French Open, and score epic wins over each at major tournaments, both when they were ranked World No.1 (Wozniacki at the 2011 Wimbledon Championships, Azarenka at 2012's Roland Garros).
It was in Paris, a decade after that breakout run, where she played her last match.
“It wasn’t a decision where I woke up and thought, ‘I don’t want to play anymore.’ It was a long process. I was already convinced by the time I played Azarenka in Miami, that this could be my last match.
“Then I talked to my coach and he reminded me, ‘You promised to play Fed Cup, so you could say goodbye to your fans in Slovakia, and then you’ll see how you feel.’ We had this plan to go until Roland Garros, and then not officially announce, but enjoy the summer, take care of myself and have some time off, and then see how it all goes. It was a long process.”
Ironically, Cibulkova played a supporting role in another retirement story that week. Doubles partner Lucie Safarova had already announced her intent to end her career at the tournament where she, too, had earned one of her most memorable results.
“It was strange because I knew, and no one around me except my team knew it would be my last tournament. At that point, I was 100% sure. I wasn’t doubting or thinking ‘maybe yes or no.’ I knew I wanted to do it like this, for this to be my last tournament. I went home and was happy with my decision. It’s really hard to make it, but once you do, you feel more free.”
That sort of abandon summarizes Cibulkova at her best, tracking impossible shots and returning them with improbable interest. While injuries – like one to her Achilles tendon - slowed the Slovak in her final months on tour, what brings her to a stop, ultimately, is a sense of satisfaction.
“I was already feeling like the tennis life is really tough, with all the traveling and training, giving 100% every day. I was started to get tired of it. In the end, I felt like I gave enough and achieved things I never dreamed of reaching in my career.”
Dreams became reality at the end of 2016, when she won the Upper Austria Ladies Linz to secure one of the remaining berths into to the WTA Finals in Singapore. From 0-2 down in the round robin, she pulled off an impressive upset over Simona Halep – avenging a Mutua Madrid Open final defeat from earlier that season – and turned the tables on top seed Angelique Kerber to take home the biggest title of her career.
“It wasn’t just winning that tournament, but also the road to qualifying, which was really hard. I had to win Linz just to make it there. So, while winning Singapore was the biggest moment of my career and life, winning Linz and the way I had to fight to get there, the fact that I was able to do it and belong among the best players in the world.
“I was never a person who wanted to prove people wrong. I knew I was good, so I wasn’t trying to play for strangers. Singapore was the moment where I could say, ‘This is why I was playing tennis my whole life.’”
Cibulkova began work on her memoir, which she also aims to release in English, soon after.
“I felt like I’d reached some of my biggest successes in my tennis career, and my story was ready to go down on paper. The book wasn’t written by a journalist but rather a novelist, so it’s not only for people who follow tennis, but also for women and men who have endured struggles in their work or in the world. In my book, I was really open and honest, revealing things I’d never told anybody.”
“Anything I do, I do 100%. When I was playing, I never really thought about what I’d do after I finished. Last year, I invested in an academy, and combined my name with it, so I’ve been going there and helping kids. In a way, I’m still in tennis; this is something I know I can do with my life, and do very well.
“It’s great because the kids really look up to and respect me. I’ve been through everything in tennis since I was a little kid, so I understand what they’re feeling at 10, or 12, or 16. I can give them a lot of experiences that I had.”
While new commitments keep her close to home – to the delight of husband Michal, once a courtside constant - Cibulkova still keeps up with the game, watching some of the Shieseido WTA Finals Shenzhen and taking in the talented next generation.
“From the end of last year into the beginning of this year I started thinking, ‘I’m getting old!’ There’s so many new girls coming up, and playing so well. They’re fearless, and they fight for every point. I thought, ‘Maybe this is the time to stop, Domi!’” she laughed, noting some similarities between her and US Open champion Bianca Andreescu.
“She beat me this year in Indian Wells, and it was at the stage of my career where I was dealing with my decision to retire, so I wasn’t 100% there. But the way she was playing, and then I saw her win the whole tournament, so she impresses me. She’s a little like me with her fighting spirit, like how I was always yelling ‘Pome!’”
Cibulkova’s perennially positive on-court attitude certainly left its mark, starting with that unmistakable affirmation.
“‘Pome’ is this Slovakian word, and it became really popular with the tennis fans. I remember the year I played the Australian Open final in 2014, I was in the elevator with some people I didn’t know. When they realized it was me, they turned around and were like, ‘Pome!’ It was so funny! It’s something that became my signature, and I’m proud of it.”
Speaking of elevators, she promises her selfie game – one that predates social media – will remain strong.
“It’s my sense for fashion. I love clothes and rewarding myself with some fashion piece after a good tournament. It just so happened that in the building where we live, there is a mirror in the elevator, so I was always taking pictures of what I was wearing that day, and sending them to my friends. Once Instagram came, I started posting those pictures as well. I didn’t expect my elevator selfies to become so famous!”
A champion as unlikely as she was unpretentious, Cibulkova was no one but herself in the decade she spent atop the women’s tour, capturing not only trophies but also the collective imagination of tennis fans who embraced her competitive fire in the face of an ever-more physical game.
She raised her level beyond what she dreamed possible, and is now ready to close the book on her career in order to craft a compelling sequel.
“I feel like this life has been fulfilled for me, and I want to start a new one.”