BRISBANE, Australia - Dominika Cibulkova survived a scare against Zhang Shuai in her first match of 2017, but the World No.5 advanced to the quarterfinals of the Brisbane International after being pushed to three sets, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.
"I was prepared for a battle," Cibulkova said after the match. "The first matches are always really tricky, and so was this one today. It wasn't easy to play the first match, but I'm happy that I won."
As the tournament's No.2 seed, Cibulkova received a bye into the second round that allowed her an extra few days to acclimate and reflect on her incredible journey; at this time last year Cibulkova was ranked. No.38 and just made the main draw cutoff. Now, she's the second-highest at the tournament.
? WTA (@WTA) January 2, 2017
Cibulkova's opponent also has a comeback story: a year ago Zhang was ranked No.139 and was considering retirement before her Grand Slam breakthrough came at the Australian Open. She finished the year at No.23 and was keen to keep her form, not breaking for off season but instead opting to play ITF events after the Huajin Securities WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai.
Her match fitness showed in her performance against the World No.5; despite Cibulkova's perfect 4-0 head-to-head record against Zhang, she was pushed to the brink in their two-hour and nineteen-minute battle at Brisbane.
The Slovak got off to a slow start, giving Zhang plenty of room to pounce and play her clean, solid game, outpacing Cibulkova. Zhang broke twice late in the opening set; Cibulkova fought off five set points but finally blinked as she buried a backhand into the net to surrender the set 6-2.
? WTA (@WTA) January 4, 2017
Despite the lopsided score line, Cibulkova kept herself within touching distance and kept Zhang under pressure even as the Chinese climbed ahead 2-0 in the second. Seeing her chances slip out of reach time and time again served to galvanize the WTA Finals champion, who brought out her arsenal of punchy groundstrokes and aggressiveness, breaking back emphatically and halting Zhang's run.
The momentum swung Cibulkova's way as Zhang seemed to lose her rhythm, and everything went the Slovak's way as she took the second set, playing more aggressive tennis with renewed confidence.
"[In the second set] I started to be much more aggressive," Cibulkova explained. "It was the first match of the season and I had a bit of a slow start, but I just pumped myself up more and started playing more aggressive, going for more shots. I didn't let her play her game."
? WTA (@WTA) January 4, 2017
Cibulkova stayed on course and built up a 4-0 lead to close in on the quarterfinals, but the match had a final twist as Zhang, who refused to fade away throughout the match, clawed her way back to level the score.
But the World No.5 was locked in, and Zhang allowed a couple of loose forehands to drift wide as she dropped serve and gifted Cibulkova the chance to serve it out, booking her spot into the next round.