How to play bigger than you actually are—just like the 5'3" Slovakian. (AP Photo)

How to play bigger than you actually are—just like the 5'3" Slovakian.

Enjoy the experience
 

Dominika Cibulkova revels in every aspect of the sport, right down to its scent. When she holds a ball before a point, she often raises it to her nose and drinks in the smell. After changeovers, she doesn’t just walk back on court, she kicks her feet up high behind her. Between games, she bobs and weaves like a boxer. When Cibulkova wins a big match, she doesn’t just throw her arms in the air, she falls to the court in exuberance. The first step to playing tennis well is to play it enthusiastically.

Cibulkova maintains her speedy but steady playing pace at all times.

Play fast, but don't rush
 

Cibulkova doesn’t waste time between points. Whether she has just won or lost one, she “refocuses right away,” as she says, and moves onto the next point. In doing so, Cibulkova doesn’t give herself time to get negative after an error. But she doesn’t rush, which is what happens when a player gets frustrated and starts moving more quickly than usual. Cibulkova maintains her speedy but steady playing pace at all times.

Make racquet head speed your friend
 

The Slovakian is well aware of one of tennis’ counterintuitive truths: When you’re attacking, the faster you swing, the safer your shot will be. The extra racquet-head speed will help you put more topspin on the ball, which will bring it down onto the court faster. If Cibulkova has a chance at a short ball, she doesn’t hesitate. She may pull the trigger too early, especially when she’s nervous. But when she works her way into position for a kill shot, she usually kills it.

Engage
 

Many WTA coaching visits go like this: The coach talks a mile a minute, while the player stares into space and studiously avoids eye contact. The opposite is true when Cibulkova calls for her mentor, Matej Liptak. She looks at him, listens carefully and chimes in with her own thoughts. After their chat, they exchange a hand-slap of encouragement. When you take a lesson, or have a coach watch you play, don’t imbibe the information passively. Get involved in your own learning process and you’ll push your coach to think more deeply about your game.

Fight, don't whine
 

Cibulkova could make excuses about her game because of her diminutive height. Instead, she finds ways around it. On her serve, she has developed a high but reliable ball toss that allows her to get as far up and into the court as she can. When Cibulkova’s ground strokes go off, she could start to doubt herself. But she remains disciplined and keeps doing what she knows she needs to do: Use her speed to counter her opponents’ size, and get the first strike in before they do. Sometimes, it helps not to have too many options.