By Matt Cronin, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
CARLSBAD , Calif. - On a tour where almost every top-30 player has a large team around her, finding two players who are often competing for the same trophies and who still call themselves friends is becoming more and more rare.
But there are exceptions, such as Dominika Cibulkova and Marion Bartoli, who are quite close and never gave each other a cold stare after the Slovakian won the Mercury Insurance Open title with a 6-1, 7-5 victory over the top seeded Frenchwoman.
Bartoli, who was forced to play nine hours and 53 minutes in her four matches at the La Costa resort, wept after the match, partly because she didn't bring her best and partly because she is contending with a very sore left hip and ankle.
She put every single ounce of energy into her four matches during the week, but was not able to mentally face down the very talented Cibulkova like she did to her three previous foes. Her quality was lacking and the 23-year-old took advantage of it.
She and Cibulkova met about four to five years ago, and played four times during 2008 (Cibulkova’s breakout season) and split those matches. That didn't stop the two hard hitters from becoming close despite their four-year difference in age.
"We love to practice with each other," the 27-year-old Bartoli said. "We practice many times. We are best friends since so many years now, and obviously we have been supporting each other through the tough times. We get along very well. I think we have the same mindset on and off the court. We are obviously both fighters. You can see on the court today we are not really giving to each other many things, but I think it's also a great respect to show to your opponent that you're there to win as well. We have the same mentality. We want to get better, and we never mind practicing, so I think we have pretty much the same character."
Both women are no nonsense people – smart, direct and with a good sense of humor. They are willing to joke about other players and themselves, which is a sign of good mental health.
"She's very different," Cibulkova said. "If you know her only on the court, she's a little bit -- you can say a little bit strange or, you know, different. But she's not like this. Off the court she's a really nice person and she's only one of the few players that really means something. It's not fake and she really cares. If you're injured, she take some time [to text you]. So she's really a normal person and she's really nice."
Bartoli has reached a Slam final before and will remain in the top 10, while Cibulkova has reached one Slam semi and on Sunday managed to win just her second career title. But she is very fast and has terrific power off the ground. At a No. 13 ranking, she is just one off of her career high. If she can just keep herself positive and not fall into mental funks, she could soon join Bartoli and the rest of the elite.
"The main thing to be inside the Top 10 I know from my experience is consistency," Bartoli said. "You have to play a lot of good weeks. You can have some weeks when you don't play so well, but you have to have a lot of great weeks. Obviously she has the game for it. Maybe the thing with Domi is she's not that tall, so it takes her a lot of energy to play really well, and maybe she's having some trouble backing up this kind of energy, but I think when she's on, like during this tournament, yes, she is definitely able to be there."
Cibulkova agreed with Bartoli’s assessment, and at least during the last two weeks of the Emirate Airline US Open Series she has showed that she is improving, so much so that she now leads the Bonus Standings race with 85, to 70 for Bank of the West Classic winner Serena Williams. She and the rest of her peers are competing for bonus prize money at the US Open, with more than $2.6 million in total bonus prize money available.
She’s headed to London this week for the Olympics, but she wants back on U.S. hardcourts as soon as possible.
"I'm back on track," she said. "I played finals and now I won a tournament. So let's see what's going to happen in Olympics. With grass again, that's what I'm not really happy about. But then it's (back to) the Emirates Airline US Open Series, so I'm really looking forward to it."