Dominika @Cibulkova and her #WTAFinals trophy! 😃🏆— WTA (@WTA) October 31, 2016
📷--> https://t.co/OAafnikYol pic.twitter.com/yHp7LEmSpM
Last week, for the second time this year, world number 1 Angelique Kerber was very close to winning a huge prize, but couldn't do it. Both times, she was defeated--not by a massive forehand or backhand or wicked cleverness--Kerber was done in by feisty. Both Monica Puig at the Olympic Games and Dominika Cibulkova at the WTA Finals--both of whom have a lot of tennis talent, no doubt--were able to overcome the German star by injecting into the matches an extra dose of sheer grit and determination.
The 6-3, 6-4 scoreline of the final match in Singapore doesn't begin to convey what Cibulkova had to go through to stop the defensive brilliance of Kerber. There were moments, in the second set, when I wasn't sure the players were still in the stadium, they had pulled each other so far off of the court. It was a very good match, with moments of great excitement. Cibulkova, who ended the match with an astonishing first serve percentage of 83, hit 28 winners and made only 14 unforced errors. She won the title on her fourth match point, a netcord gift that only served to underscore the drama of the entire event.
Cibulkova has now overcome the two liabilities that have held her back in her already very good career. A few years ago, she conquered the lower back/thigh problem that had haunted her for a very long time. (Because of her height, the Slovakian player has to rely on her strong core, but because she hits the ball so hard, she has some physical vulnerabilities.) She also conquered a worse problem--being undone by nerves at crucial times in matches. With those two issues resolved, Cibulkova became a different player.
Unfortunately, a left achilles injury and subsequent surgery put her out of commission for several months in 2015, and she had some catching up to do. In typical Cibulkova fashion, she attacked that project with force. In February, the former Australian Open runner-up was ranked number 66 in the world; today, she is ranked number 5.
Last year, after going 1-2 in round robin play at the WTA Finals, Agnieszka Radwanska won the event. That was an unusual scenario that we didn't expect to see repeated any time soon, but Cibulkova, the 2016 Comeback Player of the Year, won the WTA Finals the same way. As a member of the "weak" white group, she went 1-2 in round robin play, losing to Kerber in round 1, and then to Madison Keys. In round 3, she beat Simona Halep, and the way the numbers fell, she wound up in the semifinals, in which she faced a resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova. She won that match, too, thereby getting a chance to face Kerber (who knocked out defending champion Radwanska) again.
And while it can't feel good for Kerber to have lost the prestigious Singapore title, this did mark the first year that she made it as far as the semifinals, so she, too, outdid herself.
I'm going on record here as someone who wholeheartedly approves of the round robin format. After all, these are eight elite players, and a knockout tournament just doesn't seem to do them justice. Also, the unpredictability of the event is kind of fun.
.@KateMakarova1 & @EVesnina001 kiss the @WTAFinalsSG doubles title trophy. #WTAFinals pic.twitter.com/wRaQZIg6Yo— WTA (@WTA) October 30, 2016
Cibulkova wasn't the only winner of the WTA Finals. Olympic gold medal winners Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina won the doubles title, defeating Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova. Had Mattek-Sands and Safarova won, Mattek-Sands would have become the number 1 doubles team in the world. As it is, Sania Mirza retains that ranking.