Welcome back to Clay Chronicles, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the clay seasons of the past five years. After recapping Charleston's classics and Stuttgart's standards, our retrospective now heads to Madrid, Spain to recount some of the best matches from recent editions of the Mutua Madrid Open. Continuing the countdown is Dominika Cibulkova, who kickstarted a career-best 2016 season with a memorable victory over rival Agnieszka Radwanska at the Caja Magica.
HOW THEY GOT THERE: The first big event of the 2016 European clay court season delivered a marquee opening number when top seed Agnieszka Radwanska drew Dominika Cibulkova in the first round of the Mutua Madrid Open.
Ranked World No.2 after ending 2015 with the WTA Finals crown, Radwanska rode a 13-match winning streak to a Shenzhen Open title and Australian Open semifinal to start the new season, and was eager to unveil a new approach to success on a surface that had presented its problems in the past.
"I grew up on clay," she reminded readers in a blog post written for The Straits Times that spring. "Every junior tournament was on clay and I was very comfortable on the surface when I was growing up. Then everything changed when I started playing on Tour."
Madrid rewind: Serena survives match points against Azarenka
Radwanska finished runner-up at the 2012 Wimbledon Championships and twice reached the final four in Melbourne, but clay remained a gap in her resume with just one quarterfinal run at Roland Garros. For 2016, she aimed to maximize her results by minimizing her schedule.
"Sometimes I get frustrated that I can't do the same on clay as I can do on a hardcourt. But it's not really a mental block. It's just one of those things where not everything that is working on a hardcourt works on clay."
Leading the Madrid field after World No.1 Serena Williams withdrew with the flu, Radwanska's clay court frustrations would only be exacerbated against Cibulkova, a threat on any surface and a 2009 French Open semifinalist.
The Slovak was a Top 10 player at the start of 2015, having reached her first Grand Slam final the year prior at the Australian Open - dismissing Radwanska in the semis with the loss of just three games - but erratic results followed and by the summer she was ranked World No.62. Though she was back on an upswing early in 2016 with a title run in Katowice and a runner-up result at the Abierto Mexicano Telcel - narrowly losing to an in-form Sloane Stephens - she was unseeded and, to Radwanska's consternation - looming as a possible first round opponent.
Cibulkova and Radwanska had last played at the BNP Paribas Open, where the Pole rallied from 5-2 and match point down in the final set to win the last five games of a 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 clash that set the stage for another battle on Estadio Manolo Santana.
WHAT HAPPENED: Cibulkova twice trailed Radwanska by a service break in the opening set, only for the Slovak to turn the tables on the top seed by exploiting her superior movement and shot selection. Mixing her trademark heavy ballstriking with surprising finesse, she swept the opening set at her first opportunity, swiping a forehand cross-court to overpower the Pole.
Seeming to have the momentum in the second, Cibulkova recovered from a break down to move ahead 5-3 with a chance to serve for the match. Radwanska responded with aplomb, racing out to 0-40 to ultimately break serve and level the set with a netcord winner.
The World No.2 rallied from 0-2 down in the ensuing tiebreak to take four in a row by the change of ends, forcing a decider with an impressive service winner.
Radwanska began the final set with the wind at her back, breaking first and standing two points from a 3-0 lead, only to see a reversal of the second set as Cibulkova moved through the next three games to score a break of her own.
While Radwanska leveled at three games apiece, it was the launchpad Cibulkova needed, grabbing another 5-3 advantage with a thunderous backhand down the line - punctuated with her signature "Pome!" cheer.
Cibulkova held her nerve as she edged towards match points, thwarting Radwanska's defense with one last swinging forehand to clinch the upset, 6-4, 6-7(3), 6-3, in just over two and a half hours.
WHAT THEY SAID: The late-night win for Cibulkova proved to be far from a one-off that week in Madrid. With the top seed out of contention, the 5'3" Slovak stood tall against the remaining opposition in the top half of the draw, surviving a first set bagel against Caroline Garcia in the second round and two more three-setters against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and resurgent Romanian Sorana Cirstea to reach her first Premier Mandatory semifinal in over two years, finally falling to Simona Halep in the championship match.
"Yeah, I would say it was really, really important, because if I wouldn't make it then I could be already in Rome," she said of the Radwanska win after dispatching surprise semifinalist Louisa Chirico, 6-1, 6-1 to reach the final. "I knew that I'm playing well, and I don't want to say it doesn't mean anything when you just playing well in the practice. It means something.
"But," she clarified, "you have to show it on the court and you just have to beat these good players if I want to get back where I was before. So it was big win for me, and that's what helped me. I was also 6-0, 3-0 down against Garcia. So you never know."
Despite her gamble backfiring at the first hurdle, Radwanska held firm to her scheduling strategy and didn't play another clay court event before Roland Garros, all with an eye on peaking at Wimbledon.
"I will make up for it in a few weeks when the Tour moves to grass," she wrote. "My style is great on grass, where we now play for five weeks of the year. Of course I want to do well at the French Open and have the right preparation. But I'm definitely not going to play many tournaments on clay. I'm trying to cut the clay court season and maybe add one more tournament on grass instead. I want to do well but I still don't want to play that much on clay."
WHAT IT MEANT: The one thing Radwanska's strategizing didn't account for, unfortunately, was Cibulkova, against whom she'd face twice more in 2016 - both times on grass. While both women bowed out before the quarterfinals at the French Open, they met again in Eastbourne where Cibulkova scored a second straight win.
This time, Cibulkova rode that quarterfinal victory to the title, her first on the Premier level in nearly three years, and was equally game for the Radwanska challenge two weeks later at Wimbledon. Radwanska saw her grass court designs go up in smoke when she and Cibulkova met on Manic Monday and lost a 9-7 final set after holding match point.
Cibulkova's 2016 surge continued in the Asian Swing, where she reached the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open final and won a third title of the year in Linz to secure a maiden berth at the WTA Finals where, like Radwanska a year before, she rallied from a 1-2 round robin record to win the biggest title of her career in Singapore.
“It wasn’t just winning that tournament, but also the road to qualifying, which was really hard," she reflected last fall following her 2019 retirement. "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.’”