Steve Flink: Cibulkova Captures WTA Finals

The notion that Dominika Cibulkova would be standing front and center now as the champion of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals [in] Singapore would have seemed preposterous as recently as a week ago.

She headed into the season-ending event as the No. 8 ranked woman in the world, making her first appearance in this prestigious tournament, happy in many ways just to be among the participants. The diminutive Cibulkova is by no means a pessimist. She is indefatigable, right up there as one of the toughest and most resilient competitors on the circuit, reliably giving herself a path to victory every time she steps on a court, ceding no ground in achieving high honors.

But the fact remains that Cibulkova simply did not inspire confidence in her chances to most learned observers when they took into account that she was surrounded by top caliber adversaries all week long in the round robin format at Singapore. Eight of the top nine players on the WTA Tour were there; only world No. 2 Serena Williams—nursing an ailing shoulder and presumably needing rest for the critical year ahead—was missing. Cibulkova—seeded seventh— was in the Red Group with world No. 1 Angelique Kerber, No. 3 seed Simona Halep, and No. 6 Madison Keys. The White Group featured No. 2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 4 Karolina Pliskova, No. 5 Garbine Muguruza and the enduring Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, who secured the eighth and last place in the field.

To be sure, even without Serena, it was a stellar field across the board. Kerber was the clear favorite. Some thought Halep might be ready to step to the forefront, others believed Radwanska was primed to conclude the year triumphantly, and still more thought the explosive Pliskova was capable of claiming the crown. There were those who hoped—perhaps unrealistically—that the dynamic Keys could blast her way prodigiously to the title. The way many close followers of the sport looked at it, Cibulkova was a player who could very well do some damage on any given day, but not a bonafide candidate to take the title.

That point of view was only reaffirmed by what occurred in the early stages of the WTA Finals. Cibulkova collided with Kerber in the first round robin match for both women, and the top ranked player in tennis prevailed in a hard fought and well played encounter, coming through 7-6 (5), 2-6, 6-3. Cibulkova next took on an in form Keys, and the American powered through 6-1, 6-4. Having suffered two consecutive losses, the 27-year-old came precariously close to being knocked out of contention for a place in the semifinals. But Cibulkova kept her chances alive by removing Halep 6-3, 7-6 (5). Winning that contest in straight sets was imperative for the Slovakian. She finished her round robin play with a 1-2 record in matches, as did both Halep and Keys. But they were 2-4 in sets won and lost; Cibulkova was 3-4. And that enabled her to move into the semifinals from her group along with the undefeated Kerber. From the White Group, Kuznetsova and Radwanska were victorious in two of their three singles matches respectively. Radwanska won the group by virtue of a 5-2 record in sets with Kuznetsova finishing second at 5-4.

Cibulkova found herself facing the ever dangerous Kuznetsova in the penultimate round, and their duel was a dandy. The 31-year-old Russian overwhelmed Cibulkova in the opening set with the weight of her ground strokes, the precision and depth of her serve, her capacity to come forward in timely fashion and, above all, her outstanding forehand returns from the ad court. Cibulkova could hardly get her bearings against the two-time major singles champion. From 1-1 in the opening set, Kuznetsova was overwhelmingly, unstoppable in every facet of the game, utterly in charge of the pattern of play.

Kuznetsova collected five games in a row to take that opening set 6-1. Gradually across the second set, Cibulkova added depth and velocity to her shots, and her serve improved considerably, although she twice failed to serve out the set at 5-4 and 6-5. On they went to a crucial tie-break. Leading 3-2 on her own delivery, Cibulkova demonstrably elevated her game. A brilliant forehand swing volley winner made it 4-2 in her favor. A service winner down the T from Cibulkova followed. Another forehand swing volley winner took Cibulkova to 6-2, and then the 5'3" dynamo took advantage of a terrific return, stepping in for a crackling two-handed backhand winner driven gorgeously crosscourt.

Those four sterling points in a row enabled Cibulkova to take the match into a third set for all the marbles. Over the course of the 2016 season, Kuznetsova boasted an enviable 22-9 winning record in three set skirmishes while Cibulkova was a respectable 18-10. In Singapore, Kuznetsova had twice been the victor in three set showdowns with Radwanska and Pliskova, ousting the former 7-5, 1-6, 7-5, striking down the latter 3-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6) after the U.S. Open finalist had led 30-0 when she served for the match at 6-5 in the final set. Those were two remarkable clutch efforts from a woman who has long been one of the most well rounded players in the game.

Be that as it may, Kuznetsova was now in a protracted battle against a surging Cibulkova, who swiftly seized the initiative at the outset of the third set. She swept eight of twelve points to move ahead 2-0. But Kuznetsova fought back ferociously, breaking in the third game with an inside out forehand return winner, holding for 2-2 and then claiming two more games in a row. The stocky Russian garnered a 4-2 lead. Cibulkova found herself in a serious bind when she served at 30-30 in the seventh game. But she came forward confidently to deal with a hanging return of serve, putting away a forehand drive volley. Emboldened by that bold move, she directed a first serve into the body of Kuznetsova, who could not handle the return.

Cibulkova held for 3-4, and soon broke at 15 for 4-4 on a double fault from her opponent. Tension was almost palpably in the air on both sides of the set. Cibulkova double faulted to fall behind 15-40 in the ninth game, but then moved past her anxiety, sending Kuznetsova from corner to corner, coaxing an error from the Russian on an arduous running forehand. Cibulkova made it to deuce with a dazzling forehand winner up the line. Kuznetsova was then forced into a pair of backhand errors. It was 5-4 for Cibulkova.

With Kuznetsova serving to stay in the tournament, she reached 30-30 in the tenth game, but missed her first serve. Cibulkova displayed both courage and character here, sending a scorching forehand inside out before cracking a forehand inside in for an outright winner. Down match point, Kuznetsova met misfortune. Cibulkova's forehand passing shot clipped the net cord, and a discombobulated Kuznetsova punched a forehand volley wide. Cibulkova got the win 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4. The closeness of the encounter was reflected in the statistics: both women produced 27 winners, while Kuznetsova made 35 unforced errors, four more than Cibulkova.

In the other semifinal, Kerber dismissed Radwanska comprehensively, winning 6-2, 6-1. These two masterful percentage players traded service breaks in the first two games, which were filled with apprehension on both sides of the net. Kerber captured the next two games to open up a 3-1 lead, and then Radwanska held in the following game. But Kerber settled into a baseline groove to sweep three games in a row, collecting 12 of 17 points in the process. The German southpaw took the set 6-2. After another exchange of service breaks at the outset of the second set, Kerber did not drop another game. After four deuces, she broke again in the third game and never looked back. This was Kerber awfully close to her zenith, rock solid off the forehand, defending with singular skill and intensity, making spectacular shots on the run.

It had been a magnificent season for Kerber. She had broken Serena Williams's 186 week hold on the No. 1 world ranking when she took over at the top following her triumph at the U.S. Open. She had won her first major at the start of the year, toppling Serena in the Australian Open final. She had played beautifully on the lawns at Wimbledon before losing an absorbing final against Williams. And she had sealed the year-end No. 1 ranking already. Meanwhile, over the summer, she also made it to the final of the Olympic Games before bowing against an inspired Monica Puig.

Considering all of those exploits, it seemed likely that Kerber would underline her supremacy as the best player in the world of women's tennis for 2016 with another big victory in Singapore at a tournament where she had won only two of nine matches in three previous appearances. What could be more fitting than Kerber securing the last prestigious prize of 2016? And yet, no one was fully prepared for the astonishing performance that Cibulkova would put on. In my view, she played the match of her life. She acquitted herself from the beginning until near the very end with unbridled verve, deep intensity and a complete lack of inhibition. Cibulkova was essentially in the zone, and Kerber did not have the resources on this particular afternoon to fend off a soaring adversary and bring her back down to earth.

In the opening game, Cibulkova was down 15-30, but she climbed to 30-30 with a flat winner off the forehand, followed by a backhand down the line into the clear. At 40-30, Cibulkova released a heavy kick second delivery, and Kerber could not handle the return off her forehand. That hold allowed Cibulkova to relax, to swing more freely, to feel like she belonged. With Kerber serving in the second game, Cibulkova unleashed a clean winner crosscourt off the forehand before Kerber double faulted. Kerber took the next point but was then forced into an error off the forehand. At 15-40, a deep crosscourt forehand from Cibulkova opened up a wide avenue for a forehand down the line winner. She had the break for 2-0 and consolidated it swiftly, starting the third game with an ace, rolling to 40-0, holding at love with a crackling backhand crosscourt winner. In establishing her 3-0 lead, Cibulkova had taken 12 of 15 points.

Kerber was not serving well. At 30-15 in the fourth game, she double faulted. Cibulkova garnered the next point with a forehand down the line winner, creating a break point opportunity which would have given her a 4-0 lead. But Kerber erased it with one of her few effective wide serves in the ad court. Cibulkova's backhand return landed long. Kerber held on for 1-3. The German's defense in the next game was nothing short of stupendous and she broke at 30 to get back on serve. At 2-3, Kerber served at 30-30, hoping to maintain her brief momentum, knowing full well that she had to hold on here.

She did not. Cibulkova was having a golden day off the forehand. She used a deep return of serve to set up another sizzling winner down the line off that side. No doubt feeling under duress, Kerber netted a backhand crosscourt she would seldom miss. Cibulkova was back in the driver's seat, ahead 4-2, brimming with enthusiasm. She held at love for 5-2 . After Kerber easily held in the eighth game, Cibulkova served for the set. Trailing 15-30, she sent a backhand beautifully down the line for a winner. At 30-30, Cibulkova pulled Kerber forward with a backhand drop shot, easily anticipated a down the line response from the German, and connected impeccably with a backhand down the line passing shot. Now at set point, Cibulkova did not falter, serving down the T with supreme accuracy, drawing a short return, moving forward to make a nicely controlled forehand crosscourt winner. Set to Cibulkova, 6-3.

Kerber seemed well aware that she was confronting a fearless adversary who could do almost no wrong in her confident state of mind. The German held at 15 to reach 1-0 in the second set but Cibulkova retaliated by holding at 30 as Kerber tried in vain to throw her opponent off guard with a cluster of sliced backhands. Unnerved, Kerber wasted a 30-0 lead with a pair of double faults but eventually willed her way to 2-1. Cibulkova commenced the fourth game with a forehand winner driven down the middle behind Kerber, and held at love for 2-2. Kerber forged a 3-2 lead with a solid hold but Cibulkova was unshakable, holding at love after serving an ace for 40-0. Kerber remained uncomfortable and out of rhythm on serve. She double faulted for the sixth and last time to fall behind 0-30. Cibulkova came through with a backhand down the line winner for 0-40. She broke at 15 for 4-3 and held at 15 for 5-3, serving an ace for 40-15. Kerber took the ninth game with an ace at 40-15, closing the gap to 5-4.

This is where it got very interesting. Cibulkova had seemed devoid of nerves until now, and was poised to close out the account without complications. She moved to 40-15, but double faulted into the net on her first match point. On the second, she drove a routine forehand long. When Cibulkova pulled a forehand wide, Kerber advanced to break point, but Cibulkova executed a terrific backhand drop volley winner for deuce. A trademark forehand down the line winner gave Cibulkova a third match point. She had a sitter off the forehand, but netted it tamely. Now Kerber succeeded in one of the most spirited exchanges of the match, garnering a second break point with her excellent court coverage. Once more, however, Cibulkova raised the stakes, lacing a forehand down the line into an open space.

Both players recognized the magnitude of the moment. If Kerber could break through here and make it to 5-5, she would have been fully capable of turning the entire match around. Cibulkova had to close it out now. But Kerber revealed her lack of conviction, netting an easy second serve return off the backhand. Cibulkova had earned or been gifted a fourth match point, and this one was eerily reminiscent of the way she ended her semifinal against Kuznetsova. She released a running forehand crosscourt that turned into a let cord winner. Bad luck for Kerber. Good fortune for Cibulkova. Title to the enterprising Slovakian, who won 6-3, 6-4.

Coming into 2016, Cibulkova had captured only four singles titles across her distinguished career. But in this year alone she has pocketed four more. Yet this was by far the largest prize of her career. As was the case with Radwanska in 2015, Cibulkova has won the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore despite two defeats in round robin competition. In my view, that fact demonstrates a glaring flaw in the format. Losing once is justifiable but two setbacks is too much. It makes me believe that moving to a 16 player, single elimination event might make more sense for arguably the fifth most important tournament in women's tennis.

The fact remains that Cibulkova recovered steadfastly against Kuznetsova and played spectacularly in the final. In the end, she represented herself as only a champion can, and now moves up deservedly to No. 5 in the world. She is entirely worthy of that status. I hope this woman—small of frame yet so large of heart—can replicate what she did in Singapore on more big occasions over the next couple of years, even if the odds are against that happening.

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