By DAN IMHOFF
Recovering from an Achilles operation at home in Slovakia late last year, Dominika Cibulkova found it hard to imagine ever playing the kind of tennis that took her to an Australian Open final only two years earlier.
The extended time on the sidelines gave her more time to ponder and coincided with planning her wedding with long-time boyfriend, Michal Navara.
In hindsight, the timing could not have been better – time to appreciation what really matters away from life as a travelling athlete and a long enough break to rediscover a hunger for the game.
The 28-year-old’s late-season surge heralded her greatest on-court triumph. She defeated then No.1 Angelique Kerber to claim the biggest title of her career – the season-ending WTA Finals in Singapore.
“Last year it was like a fairy-tale year for me on and off the court,” Cibulkova said. “I was just really enjoying being on the court and was really so motivated after the Achilles operation that I was really dedicated to it 100 per cent.
“For me the only goal was to come back and it was really a big challenge for me.
“With the wedding it was all beautiful and ended up with a Masters [WTA Finals title] so I couldn’t’ even dream about such a year.
“I was really hungry. I felt like I was back when I was maybe 20, 21, 22 when I used to be younger and wanted to play, wanted to travel. This is something the players realize because we play almost every week and it’s not easy.”
A shoulder injury has hindered Cibulkova building on her end-of-season breakthrough in 2017.
She returns to the Connecticut Open desperate for matches as she builds towards the US Open.
Seeded No.2, she opens her campaign against France’s Alize Cornet on Wednesday night, a player she defeated only last week in Cincinnati.
“It’s all about the confidence in tennis and this year I’m struggling a bit to win more matches in a row and to get this confidence, to win three, four matches and to get it and keep going,” she said.
“It was a great week for me in Cincinnati because I had three very good matches in a row.
“I had two good matches against Cornet and [Ana] Konjuh so I’m really positive.”
Long touted as one of the players consistently in the mix for a breakthrough Grand Slam title, Cibulkova’s WTA Finals triumph could prove to be that missing injection of confidence needed to take the final step on the biggest stages.
A surprise triumph from unseeded Latvian Jelena Ostapenko to claim this year’s French Open crown has only instilled further confidence that a major is within reach.
“Oh no it just gives you more belief,” a resolute Cibulkova said. “You need to work hard, need to be a great player and all the small details have to come together for you to win a Grand Slam.
“If you’re not Serena it’s completely different for us regular players. Ostapenkno winning Roland Garros, it just really gives you this belief that you need to stay there even though some weeks are really hard, really tough.
“Even after last year, after the Masters [WTA Finals], I didn’t need Ostpenko to win to believe I could win a Grand Slam.”
A deep run in New Haven and that Grand Slam breakthrough could once again be closer than expected.