WTA Finals 2016

World No. 1 Angelique Kerber holds her nerve in WTA Finals opener

Angelique Kerber of Germany hitting a backhand against Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova during their WTA Finals opener yesterday. Top-ranked Kerber proved her fighting qualities by coming from behind in the third set to seal a 7-6 (7-5), 2-6, 6-3 victor
Angelique Kerber of Germany hitting a backhand against Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova during their WTA Finals opener yesterday. Top-ranked Kerber proved her fighting qualities by coming from behind in the third set to seal a 7-6 (7-5), 2-6, 6-3 victory.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

World No. 1 believes grinding out a tough win against Cibulkova will put her in good stead here

Angelique Kerber is no stranger to this stage - she has qualified for this season-ending event thrice before, including an appearance on this very court a year ago.

What was more unfamiliar as the German stepped into the Singapore Indoor Stadium to raucous cheers last night was that this time, she was the world No. 1 - the one fans had come to see and the one challengers had come to beat.

A 7-6 (7-5), 2-6, 6-3 win over Dominika Cibulkova erased memories of Kerber's last difficult loss in Singapore, ensuring that hopes of progressing from the round-robin stage for the first time in four attempts began on a positive note.

But the two-time Grand Slam champion was made to sweat for victory, battling her fearless eighth-ranked opponent who showed little hesitation in some bold shot-making.

Sublime retrieving kept the German in the game, but it was perhaps fitting that it was the season's top performer's grit that took Kerber across the finish line.

"(The pressure) is really big for me... it's a new situation," she said. "I'm really happy that I (dealt with) it very well today in the first match for me."

 
 

Emerging triumphant in a high-quality, nerve-racking opener was a confidence-booster for Kerber. Her arrival in Singapore follows an Asian swing where she had limited success. A quarter-final appearance in Hong Kong was her best showing through three stops, after losses in the last 16 in Wuhan and Beijing.

Down an early break to go 1-2 in the final set, Kerber responded by breaking back immediately before winning the next three games.

Said the 28-year-old: "It was a really close and tough match, so I think that was also really important for me, to have a match like that in the first round.

"That gives me a lot of confidence to win such a match after the last few weeks."

For a good hour or so, however, it had looked like Cibulkova would upset the pecking order. Recovering from a narrow loss in the first-set tie-breaker, the Slovak opened the second set with two breaks and two holds, racing to a 4-0 lead as unforced errors leaked from Kerber's racket.

But while she produced more winners - 40 to Kerber's 34 - Cibulkova's game was also not without some wasteful errors.

Said the 27-year-old WTA Finals debutante, who admitted that the pressure of the occasion led to uncharacteristic mistakes: "I think this (was) what made me lose today. In this game, it's all about small details. (Kerber) was just a bit more consistent in a few games, and that's what made her win today."

With a first win in the bag and nerves out of the way, Kerber expects to be more familiar with the weight of expectation when she plays her next match against Simona Halep tomorrow.

She said: "I feel the pressure. I have much more things to do also in the (next) few days.

"I'm really trying to play my best tennis in the last tournament (of the year).

"Of course now I'm a little bit relaxed."

WTA FINALS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2016, with the headline 'Kerber holds her nerve'. Print Edition | Subscribe