Cibulkova serves notice -- sort of


KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- It was approaching happy hour here but, unfortunately, no one playing on the stadium court was able to serve.

Neither Agnieszka Radwanska nor Dominka Cibulkova, clever and intuitive players both, possess anything approaching a dominant serve. And, admittedly, they are both far finer returners. And, true, it was inordinately breezy Wednesday at the Sony Open Tennis. But ...

... If you are a fan of the majesty of the serve, Tuesday's quarterfinal was not for you. Radwanska held exactly one service game in winning the first set. Cibulkova, whose high toss was routinely buffeted, didn't lock down her first hold until the 13th game of the match.

"Yeah," Cibulkova said later. "I have to admit we are not the best servers with Aga, you know. So who will win the serve then will get a set."

It all added up to an astonishing 16 breaks of serve in 21 games through the first two sets and 19 of 30 overall. In the end, Cibulkova overcame three match points in a single game of the second set and prevailed dramatically 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3.

When Radwanska's last furry forehand sailed long and wide, Cibulkova channeled Bjorn Borg and laid on her back and exulted. Cibulkova, a feisty 24-year-old from Slovakia, was broken 10 times and had a top serve speed of 99 miles per hour.

"In those matches you have to play good and you have to be lucky," Radwanska explained. "I was just playing good and she was both."

And then she smiled. Perhaps she was remembering a phenomenal point from the third set when she covered the entire court and made a save with a behind-the-back backhand -- and lost the point when Cibulkova hit behind her and clipped the top of the net.

"I think with the wind and all these things on court, yeah, you can see a shot like that," she said. "I was just trying whatever I could to hit that ball in."

In the tiebreaker, Cibulkova fell into a 2-5 hole but dug out, appropriately, on Radwanska's serve. Winning the last three points on Radwanska's serve, Cibulkova watched a forehand drift wide and first-pumped her way into the third set. She carried that positive body language and attitude into the third set, where she actually held serve four of five times.

Their manic matches are hard to explain. They've played five times in the past 14 months, and last year in Sydney, Radwanska skunked her 6-0, 6-0. At this year's Australian Open, Cibulkova was a 6-1, 6-2 winner in the semifinals. This one had all of those combined in a single match.

Now, Cibulkova advances to play the winner of the Wednesday night quarterfinal match between No. 2 seed Li Na and No. 11 Caroline Wozniacki. Monday, Cibulkova will find herself in the WTA's top 10 for the first time ever. Radwanska, the 2012 champion here, will remain at No. 3.

"Before the match," Cibulova said, "even before the tournament, like they keep asking me, 'top 10' and everything, and I just said, like, 'OK, if I should be there, I will be there. If I should not be there, I will not be there.'

"So now I'm there. So finally it's over."

That vast edge in experience would seem to suggest a Roger Federer victory, but tennis has a way of consistently delivering these May-October encounters in which the outcome is never certain. the Swiss champion faded.

Roger Federer fades at the Sony Open Despite stellar play heading into the event, Swiss champ couldn't find his rhythm Roger Federer had experience on his side A vast edge in experience didn't help Roger Federer against a game Kei Nishikori at the Sony Open, writes Greg Garber.

Li gets her groove on

There was a brief time (18 weeks), when Caroline Wozniacki was the WTA's No. 1-ranked player. That was the cusp between the 2010 and 2011 seasons and after nights like Wednesday it seems like a long, long time ago.

The youngest of the eight quarterfinalists at 23, Wozniacki -- "The Golden Retriever," as Bud Collins dubbed her -- is a wonderful defender but her offense is sometimes nonexistent. Her ranking has fallen to No. 18, but she can still beat lesser players. The problem is the heavy hitters.

Li Na, the reigning Australian Open champion, qualifies in this category. Like Serena Williams, she may be 32, but the Chinese player has found a groove late in her professional life.

Wozniacki was in the thick of both sets at 5-all, but eventually fell 7-5, 7-5 in a match that required 2 hours, 2 minutes.

"I was feeling she was the best to defend in all the tour," Li said later, "so I was feeling a little bit like player against a wall. Because doesn't matter where is it. She always come and put the ball back to my court.

"After I was finished the match, I was feeling, `Wow, you doing good. You beat a wall.'"

The difference?

With Wozniacki serving at 5-all in the first set, Li's superior groundstrokes -- deeper and flatter -- and the stress of the situation overcame her. She dropped back-to-back games and, with that, the set.

Three games into the second, Wozniacki was visited by a WTA trainer, who put her through all kinds of gyrations for what appeared to be a back injury. Eventually she manipulated her back with a series of maneuvers that most of us would be charged $120 for. Watching from the stands, fiancée/golfer Rory McIlroy did not seem overly concerned.

When things got tough in the second, after a double fault and a scorching Li forehand winner, Wozniacki reached for her back.

Now, Li faces Dominka Cibulkova in a Thursday night semifinal that will look strikingly familiar. Li's already beaten her this year in the Melbourne final and the quarterfinals at Indian Wells.

"Does mean both doing well," Li said, smiling. "Otherwise we cannot play together, right? Another tough match, for sure. Miami is Miami, because Australia is over."