An odd but often compelling match, the final of the Mercury Insurance Open unfolded as a drama in three acts. After one woman swept seven of the first eight games, her foe reeled off four straight before the player who seized the initiative first regained control to win six of the last seven.
Although she found herself forced to save two break points in her opening service game, the second-seeded Cibulkova erased them in style and soon parlayed the momentum into a break of top-seeded Bartoli’s serve. The world #10, who had struggled with assorted leg injuries and woeful serving this week, moved around the court a little less doggedly than usual while winning few free points from her delivery. Across the net, the diminutive Slovak jerked Bartoli around the baseline with whipping forehands on key points, and her elegant drop shots left the Frenchwoman hopelessly marooned time after time. A step slow and a thought late for most of the first set, the top seed threatened to reassert herself in the sixth game, but Cibulkova survived several deuces to hold with a fistpump.
As one could have anticipated, the lopsided first set left behind a lull as spectators wondered whether Bartoli could find any answers to her oppressor. When another challenging service game for the Slovak ended with her unscathed, and three break points beckoned for her soon thereafter, few could have faulted the top seed for yielding mentally. But Bartoli is made of sterner stuff than many of her rivals, and she stared down the break points without nerves, cracking penetrating first serves on two of them. Cibulkova then donated her first break of the match with a sloppy service game that included a point penalty for a hindrance (calling out before the point ended), and the double-fister built a double-break lead with more consistent servings and returns that skimmed off the baseline. With the score standing at a schizophrenic 6-1, 1-4, Carlsbad at last had a final.
Or rather it momentarily had a final. Summoning her father-coach, Walter, before the sixth game, Bartoli clearly did not benefit from his advice. Instead, she played perhaps her worst game of the match in dropping serve at love with two double faults. Emboldened by the reprieve, Cibulkova held her own serve at love as she punctuated each forehand winner with her trademark yelp. Soon Bartoli’s other break disappeared in a span during which her opponent won 16 of 19 points. Having won only one previous title, at Moscow last fall, Cibulkova understandably tightened a little when she stood on the edge of her second. In the comfortable hold for Bartoli that followed, several unforced errors from the Slovak betrayed her nerves. Nevertheless, she proceeded to hold comfortably in the following game just as her opponent might have begun to nurture hopes of another stirring comeback. When she stood within a game of the title for the second time, at 6-5 in the second set, Cibulkova did not blink again but stepped inside the court to attack her groundstrokes and take time away from a flustered, jaded Frenchwoman. The weight of three three-set night matches this week ultimately proved too greatfor Bartoli to overcome. Converting her first championship point on a bold approach to the net, she sprawled across the Carlsbad court before moving swiftly to the net to shake hands with Bartoli, a rival for whom she has accumulated respect over the years.
When Agnieszka Radwanska won this title in 2011, she used it as a platform from which she vaulted to more prestigious crowns in Beijing, Tokyo, and Miami before reaching the Wimbledon final this summer. One wonders whether Cibulkova can use Carlsbad similarly as a precursor to greater accomplishments. A ball-striker far more powerful than her size would suggest, she certainly possesses the talent to reach the top 10. As Bartoli wisely noted afterwards, her smaller size forces her to expend more energy than other players on each match, and her ranking will not rise to a new plateau unless she finds the consistency that those at the top can summon. With another trophy in her collection, however, Cibulkova will not lack for confidence to push herself forward during the action-packed summer ahead.