Sunday, August 3, 2008
MONTRÉAL, Canada - One of the most in-form players from the clay court season only seems to be getting even hotter on summer hardcourts. Playing a final for the fifth time in her last six events, Dinara Safina was immaculate against Dominika Cibulkova at the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank, cruising to her third Sony Ericsson WTA Tour title of the year with a 62 61 victory.
Safina, who was the No.7 seed at the Tier I event, blew through her first two matches of the week against Anastasia Rodionova and No.9 seed Patty Schnyder, but her next two rounds wouldn't be as routine. She rallied back from a 62 20 deficit to defeat No.4 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals, 26 63 62, then regrouped after a lopsided second set loss to end No.11 seed Victoria Azarenka's run at 10:40pm on Saturday night, 60 26 63.
On the bottom half of the draw, Cibulkova was making a much less expected run. Unseeded, she knocked off No.5 seed Elena Dementieva, No.12 seed Nadia Petrova and No.2 seed Jelena Jankovic en route to the semis, and all in straight sets, no less. Her toughest match of the week came on Saturday as she took on No.10 seed Marion Bartoli; the pair fought through tough points and lengthy rain delays before Cibulkova closed out the Frenchwoman at 10:23pm, 46 64 63.
When the two met in the final there was a clear frontrunner, however; whether it was because of Safina's impressive form or Cibulkova's long week of upsets catching up with her, the Russian's 68-minute win was a clinic from the start, as she not only overpowered the Slovak from all areas of the court but she also outrallied her when the points were drawn out, double-faulting on her first match point but sealing it with a second serve ace on her next one.
"I think my experience helped me a bit in the final; I'm sure Dominika's time will come soon though," an elated Safina said. "It's the first time in my life I've won back-to-back tournaments; I used to win a tournament then lose first round the next week. But now I'm always just taking it one match at a time. It's a new experience for me and really just amazing. I'm so happy to win today."
"I was nervous in my first big final," Cibulkova said. "I'm kind of upset with how I played in the final. I wanted to have a good match against Dinara. But I think she played really well. I hope in my next final I will play better."
Safina began 2008 with an 11-10 record, reaching quarterfinals at two events but suffering pre-quarterfinal exits seven times. Since hitting the red clay courts of Berlin she has been arguably the hottest player on the Tour however, winning trophies at Berlin, Los Angeles and Montréal and finishing runner-up at Roland Garros and 's-Hertogenbosch. Her only pre-final defeat of this stretch came at Wimbledon, where she fell to Shahar Peer in the third round in a match that lasted over three hours and saw Safina up 5-3 in the third set at one point.
Safina's semifinal victim in Montréal, Azarenka, commented on the Russian's form of late: "As you can see, since the clay court season, she's playing amazingly. I think she's playing like the No.1 player in the world."
"No.1 is still so far away; this is all coming so fast," said Safina, who has now won 27 of her last 30 matches, including the last 10 straight. "I have to take a step back and realize what I've done the last few weeks. I want to take everything one step at a time. Only God knows what will happen in the weeks coming up."
"Dinara is playing really well," Cibulkova said. "She's a hard worker. I really think she can make it."
Safina becomes the fourth player this season to win three Tour singles titles, following Maria Sharapova (Australian Open, Doha and Amelia Island), Serena Williams (Bangalore, Miami and Charleston) and Agnieszka Radwanska (Pattaya City, Istanbul and Eastbourne).
Cibulkova comes away from Montreal far from empty-handed. Her wins over Dementieva and Jankovic were her third and fourth Top 10 wins of the year (and also of her career), following wins over Venus Williams in February and Anna Chakvetadze in April. By virtue of reaching the final she is also projected to crack the Top 20 for the first time on the new rankings, up from her current ranking of No.31 and blowing past her previous career-high of No.29.
"This was a great experience," Cibulkova added. "I beat great players. Every round, I beat a better player than me. I played really well in this tournament. Hopefully in my next final I will be more relaxed and not be scared about it."
It was a week of surprises for the world's Top 4. The eventual finalists took out Jankovic and Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals but world No.1 Ana Ivanovic and world No.3 Maria Sharapova fell even earlier, with Ivanovic losing to Tamira Paszek in the third round and Sharapova withdrawing prior to her third round match against Ai Sugiyama due to a right shoulder injury. Incidentally, that injury has caused her to withdraw from the Olympics and US Open.
The doubles final, pitting doubles world No.1s Cara Black and Liezel Huber against unseeded duo Maria Kirilenko and Flavia Pennetta, followed the singles final, with Black and Huber crushing the Russian-Italian combo easily, 61 61.
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