By Ros Satar, in Singapore
- Svetlana Kuznetsova  def. Agnieszka Radwanska  7-5 1-6 7-5
- Karolina Pliskova  def Garbiñe Muguruza  6-2 6-7(4) 7-5
SINGAPORE – Svetlana Kuznetsova stunned defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska in the opening White Group match at the WTA Finals, while Karolina Pliskova fought off Garbiñe Muguruza for her first win.
Svetlana Kuznetsova  def. Agnieszka Radwanska  7-5 1-6 7-5
After closing out the year stunned that she had been the one to lift the trophy, all eyes were on Radwanska for a couple of reasons, not least of which the impressive head to head over her, held by the Russian veteran.
Of course a fair degree of scrutiny was going to be coming Kuznetsova’s way – the Russian defended her Kremlin Cup crown before jumping on a plane to make the long flight to Singapore. While she was able to joke a little with the press in her pre-tournament press conference, it was a speedier start by the defending champion.
As she pulled ahead for a 4-1 lead, Kuznetsova, aided and abetted by some soothing words from her coach, suddenly showed why she had the skills to nullify Radwanska’s ninja skills. The Pole’s speed, agility and use of angles would beat many, but Kuznetsova is very sharp at the net, and still pretty nimble, getting the better of the World No. 3 in the kind of rallies you would normally expect her to win.
Add to that some potent serving when it counted, and Kuznetsova earned herself a break back before striking once more to put herself in the driving seat to serve out the first set. Perseverance won out with the Russian coming from 1-4 down to take the first set.
You would expect Radwanska to come out swinging, and that she did breaking early but there was no signs of lingering fatigue now coming from the Russian, as she broke straight back, much to the visible dismay of Radwanska – what would she have to do to prevail?
It was a test of resolve for the defending champion – Kuznetsova had givem no quarter in that first break, but had no answer as Radwanska pushed twice more to wrap up the second set with comparative ease.
By now the Kuznetsova tank looked to be running on empty – Radwanska swung with the momentum but after an impromptu haircut on court (yes, you read that right), Kuznetsova broke back.
This time it was Radwanska’s time to hit straight back (without the benefit of scissors) and props to the Pole, she stepped up her aggression in an attempt to get the upper-hand as they traded breaks again.
A nip and tuck service game hardly does justice to the battering rallies, and the flip-flopping of points – match point became break point became a break of serve and whoever was going to come out of this bruising encounter as the loser would carry this game as that pivotal moment.
With Radwanska now having to serve to stay in after Kuznetsova consolidated her break once more the scoreboard inched up point by point, the drama of a misjudged challenge on match-point – but it would be the defending champion who over-cooked it, dumping a forehand in the net for Kuznetsova to come good on her third match point.
There was no denying that this one hurt. Radwanska will try and hold on to the fact that she qualified in the group for the semi-finals last year, beating Garbiñe Muguruza who had been dominant throughout the group stages.
She said: “Still a chance, especially I was two losses down last year. But of course at the moment you’re always thinking about the match that you just lost, so I think I need to cool down first and then I will think about what I have to do to go to the semi-finals.”
Kuznetsova appears to be running on a mix of adrenalin but there was no doubting that the emotional strain of the last couple of weeks took its toll during the match.
She explained: “You know, I tried to behave and act like I’m professional athlete, professional player. I mean, sometimes it’s not easy.
“I was trying to think we’re even. We came here both to fight and let’s play the match. Put all things aside. When I get the warning I was like, Come on. I’m trying so hard.
“Then I just let it go because I was like, Come on. Just impossible right now. Maybe at some stage it help me, but it’s where it is. I did it as I felt. I was trying as much, as hard as I can to fight and just be there.”
And of course we had to know about the hair.
— doublefault28 (@doublefault28) October 24, 2016
“I was just posting the video on Instagram saying, Sometimes you got to cut your hair not by bad hair dressers in not best moments, you know. It was bothering me a lot. I was trying to put it behind my headband, but my hair is very thick and heavy.
“In the end, when I was hitting the forehands every time I would hit a good shot and I was coming, it would hit my eye every time and I had struggle. I thought, Okay, what’s more important now, my hair which I can let grow or the match? I thought, Okay, I got to go for it right now, and that’s it.”
Karolina Pliskova  def Garbiñe Muguruza  6-2 6-7(4) 7-5
It was always going to be a tough ask to top what went before. Despite the experience of her third straight World Tour Finals, and her great form at least in the Round Robin Stage, Muguruza was left standing by Finals newbie Pliskova. The Czech roared out to a 5-1 lead in the first set, as predictably prickly-looking coaching exchanges were had by Muguruza and Sam Sumyk.
It looked as though the Czech was on course for a bit of a landslide, this time reaching a 3-1 lead before Muguruza took advantage of a chink in Pliskova’s armour to break twice to turn the second set on its head.
The tide turned with another break for the Czech as they held steady for a tie-break. There Pliskova’s serve came into its own – swiftly building up a 3-0 lead. Hard to believe it was just the fourth tie-break she had won all year, as she won seven of the next eight points to take it into a decider.
Just as Pliskova raced through the first set, it was Muguruza who forged ahead in the third set. The Czech was sticking resolutely to her game plan, but perhaps for the first time in a long while, Muguruza was playing a lot more proactively.
Pliskova, who had been impassive in the first two sets was beginning to show signs of frazzling as she was unable to stop the tide of winners coming from Muguruza. Yet just as it looked as though experience would carry the Spaniard through, Pliskova regained her earlier composure to whittle away at Muguruza’s confidence.
An epic 14 minute game with eight deuces and a break for the Czech saw her start to wear Muguruza down. Even as Muguruza broke straight back and failed to convert her first match point, Pliskova turned the tide, in the end simply serving the whole match out to love.
For Muguruza – it was a come-down after her dominant run through the group stages last year.
She said: “Obviously now you’re a little bit sad because you lost, but I saw a lot of improvement in this match for me, especially when I face her. So I want to take that positive side. I know right now you’re like, Man, I had a match point, that kind of stuff. But I had my opportunity there, so that’s what I’m going to think.”
Pliskova had to admit that this was her latest finish ever, but even up against it, she never veered from her game plan, although she is wondering whether she might just skip a day!
“I think today in the match I improved a lot and I felt much better during the match and I find my game. With me it’s still the same. Everything is starting with the serve. Then I have to be active on the legs and still moving forward, because the surface here is kind of not — I would say slow, but it’s stopping somehow few balls.
“I’m going to just do my stuff, so massage, to eat something, and prepare for the next day what I have. Tomorrow, see when I wake up. I don’t know if I wake up. Maybe I wake up on Wednesday.”
The second Round Robin matches for the Red Group continue on Tuesday at 7:30pm (12:30pm BST).
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