By Ros Satar, in Singapore
- Dominika Cibulkova  def. Angelique Kerber  6-3 6-4
- Rises to World Top 5
SINGAPORE – Dominika Cibulkova, who was told she was too small for tennis was standing tall after defeating World No. 1 Angelique Kerber for the WTA Finals title.
From start to finish, Cibulkova displayed a tenacity that propelled her to her biggest title so far in her career. There were nerves from the World No. 1 – and plenty of them. Perhaps Cibulkova had the benefit of complete freedom – leaping out to a 3-0 lead and really from that point she never looked back. Kerber settled her nerves getting on the board and securing the break back only for Cibulkova to burn her again. Having not served an ace but having topped the first serve percentage stats, it was easy to see why – placement had Kerber on the back foot from the start.
And what of those elusive aces – if you are going to save them for anything, bang them down in the final – three in total on the way to her win Compare and contrast the red eyes after having been effectively shut down by Madison Keys in the second group stage match. She had to be gently reminded that it was not all over and that there was always a chance to advance with a 1-2 record.
In fact for the second year, the champion came out on the losing end of the round robin stages to prevail in the final – and this time Cibulkova looked every bit the champion, compared to Agnieszka Radwanska looking stunned at having gained the biggest title of her career to date.
Maybe because for Cibulkova – after the excitement of making her first Slam final in Melbourne 2014, she tailed off a little, and in February 2015, she underwent surgery on her left Achilles Tendon, missing the spring hard-court seeing, and all of the clay court season.
The real resurgence started though at the start of 2016, reaching the semi-finals in Hobart, making the final in Acapulco (losing to Sloane Stephens), and going on to win Katowice.
With no points to defend on the clay, she got a boost, battling her way to the Madrid final, and catching fire on the grass too. She beat Karolina Pliskova at Eastbourne and had her run to the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, with a very real danger of having to postpone her wedding if she advanced to the finals!
While the US hard-court swing might not have been as string, her results in Asia – reaching the Wuhan final – put her firmly in contention for one of the tightest races to make the season-ending finale, having to make the final or win in Linz.
Her aggressive play had given Kerber pause for thought in their first match – the opener of the Red group stages, but the German toughed it out, later joking with reporters that if we knew her (and we do!) it always takes a bit of time for her to get going.
Did Kerber just run out of steam at the finish? Her serving percentages were low, and her return games were laboured as Cibulkova painted the lines left and right. There is a lot for the German to be very proud of. She won her first Grand Slam title. She backed it up with a second in the same year, and made three of the Slam finals in one year. She got the No. 1 spot and held on to it. And she started and ended the year with a final – that’s not a bad way to run out a remarkable year
She said: “Right now it’s like just few minutes after the match so for sure I’m a little bit disappointed after the loss. But for sure I give everything. I mean, it was a tough year with a lot of matches, so I give everything on court today, the rest energy I had left.
“Of course when I’m looking back it’s one of my best years. I think when I will go home now I will just think about the best moments and the positive emotions, but, yeah, sometimes you have such a days.”
But the last words surely goes to the champion on what has been a landmark year for very different reasons.
Starting at WR. 66 at the start of the season, she jumps a staggering 61 places to finish the year in the Top 5 for the first time in her career. Not bad for someone who was told she was too small to play tennis when she first joined a club.
She told reporters: “I don’t care what people thinks. I learned to not care, because it will not change. It’s just my life. I do what I want to do. When I was younger it was something that motivated me to go forward.
“You know, a lot of people in the club and around me, they were like, Too small to play tennis. They underestimated me. After I started to play big tennis I didn’t care what people thinks. I just had my goals.”
She continued: “This is something I was dealing with since I started to play tennis. I just also maybe stubborn and brave. I really wanted to play tennis. Nobody could talk me, you know, something different.
“So I’m just happy. I’m glad I can be a motivation for people who — you know, people don’t see just the big girls winning the big tournaments, but also that somebody like me have a chance to be on the big stage in the world and win a tournament. It means everything.”
The differenced between the almost-sense-of-shock from Radwanska last year, ‘hoping’ it would be a platform for her, and the self-belief coming from Cibulkova stands out.
As she said: “I believe it. You know, right now I don’t doubt myself anymore. I mean, I don’t doubt myself this year at all.”
After her coach told her to focus after a great summer run he tried to convince her that she would be in the Top 5.
She continued: “I really, really believed him for the first time in my life. I believed, Okay, this is something I can do, I want to do. I’m not saying I was coming to this tournament to win it, but when I was so close before the finals, I was convinced that I can beat Angie today.”
While crowds at the Singapore sparse since its inaugural run two years ago, there are still elements of the format that need to be fixed, and it remains to be seen how the WTA manage its newest batch of players to harness their star qualities.
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