By Ros Satar, in Singapore
- Simona Halep  def. Madison Keys  6-2 6-4
- Angelique Kerber  def. Dominika Cibulkova  7-6(5) 2-6 6-3
SINGAPORE – The WTA Finals are off and running with winning starts for the 2014 runner-up Simona Halep, and for World No. 1 Angelique Kerber.
Simona Halep  def. Madison Keys  6-2 6-4
They say experience counts and that showed in the first match to kick off the proceedings. It was a nervy Keys up against Halep on her third trip here, and the Romanian was quick to take charge of the first set. Like a terrier she gnawed away at her break point chances , rewarded on her fourth try, and breaking again for enough of an advantage to comfortably ease the first set.
One area where Keys has improved is beginning to figure things out, as she raised her level, which started to frustrate Halep a little, missing easy put-away shots and eliciting a visit from coach Darren Cahill. Whatever he said, it worked as she came right back with a break, and followed it up with the back hand winner that can only earn a dark oath.
Keys said: “You know, kind of maybe said a bad word in my head, and then it was just too good. You know, she’s going to hit that, then she deserves to hit that winner and move on.”
She admitted: “I definitely think there were some nerves. I don’t think that’s super surprising. But, yeah, no, I think Simona played really well. It was a big moment. It was really great, and it was obviously a very new feeling for me. Then once I got on the court I definitely felt the nerves of the occasion.”
The beauty of the format is that there is not much time to dwell on the situation – which might sound surprising given these players play (and may ultimately lose) week on week and have to lift themselves.
“I think it’s one of those things where you can’t get too down on yourself because you do have to bounce back so quickly. Usually you have a couple days to kind of process everything.”
Halep certainly looked like she meant business. After making a sensational debut in 2014, stunning Serena Williams in the group stages before facing her again in the final, last year had been a little lacklustre, not getting out of the Round Robin.
Her serve was on point and she has adjusted quickly to the pace of the court – players have been mixed in their reviews of the court, some finding it fast, some finding it slow.
Halep reasoned: “I feel good. I feel the court. As I said before, the court fits me. I fit the court. Yeah, I feel good. I feel every shot. I feel how to move. I feel strong on my legs and I can stop at every ball.”
That backhand winner, and an earlier drop-shot were particular convincing calling cards that Halep has her eye on advancing further this year.
“It was nice,” she agreed about the backhand winner that gave her a decisive break at 4-4. “And the drop-shot,” she added.
She continued: “Well, actually today first one was the drop-shot. I said, That was amazing. I didn’t think anything else. Just that shot. Then the backhand I said, Oh, I feel it. It was good for me for the next game because I got confidence that it works. Backhand is my best shot, so has to work.”
Angelique Kerber  def. Dominika Cibulkova  7-6(5) 2-6 6-3
If we balance nerves with expectation, Kerber arrives with a dream year in the bank, two Slam titles and a final, a silver medal, and the World No. 1 spot to carry her into the start of next season. By now her meltdown at the end of last year’s finale is legendary. And while she has tried to deflect pressure, she had a tricky start to the campaign with Dominika Cibulkova, coasting in with the Linz title.
It was a pleasingly quick start for the German, breaking in the first game of the match but frustration mounted for her as she was broken back for 4-4 as Cibulkova got into her rhythm. Some calming words from coach Torben Beltz kept her in contention to force a tie-break with momentum swings all the way. Kerber made good on the single set point presented to her to take the first set.
Yet as quickly as she had that momentum, it swung back towards the Slovak, swiftly jumping out to a 4-0 lead before Kerber was able to steady the ship, finally holding and reclaiming one of the breaks before handing it right back, with Cibulkova going on to level the match. Who would blink first? Cibulkova will battle to the last point, breaking Kerber before the first change of ends, but Kerber came straight back at her. It was the start of a run to a winning start to her campaign.
Where Keys admitted to being nervous, Cibulkova termed it as ‘over-motivated’ and maybe rushing her shots at the start of the match before settling down to play her game.
She said, after the match: “I was a little bit too much emotional in the first set. I was too much into the game because it’s something new for me and I wanted to do well.
“I felt pretty good out there apart from the beginning. I was I cannot say nervous, but maybe I was too excited maybe in the beginning. But after few games I just started to play my tennis. I think it was pretty good match. I made few mistakes, few mistakes from the second serve and a few mistakes — she was already running in the back and I missed two easy shots. She was just bit more consistent in few games, and that’s what made her win today.”
It was key for Kerber to start strongly to banish those memories of her Safarova induced meltdown once and for all, and on a medium-slow court, that could present challenges.
She told reporters: “You just have few seconds to make this decision. I think it’s more, yeah, from the experience. We played so many matches, and I’m just trying to [follow] my feelings in this moment. I mean, sometimes I’m really low so I know how it feels to play really aggressive when you are down low and on your knees.
“I know when I’m on court that I can play for three hours. This gives me a lot confidence, that I knew that I can run forever. I knew that I had in the last few months already close matches in three sets.”
Round Robin Advancement Scenarios
It is never too early to start trying to count the ways on fingers and toes as to who will advance, so the latest scenarios for the Red group are:
- Halep qualifies if she wins in straight sets Tuesday (Position in group tbd)
- If Keys and Halep win Tuesday, Halep qualifies as group winner and Cibulkova eliminated. (Keys and Kerber would play for second spot on Thursday)
- If Kerber and Cibulkova win Tuesday, Kerber qualifies as group winner and Keys eliminated. (Cibulkova and Halep would play for second spot Thursday)
- Keys is eliminated if she loses in straight sets Tuesday
Any other combination of results will mean qualification comes down to Thursday’s matches.
Play continues with the White Group at 7:30pm (12:30pm BST).
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