Tactical battle launched ahead of WTA Finals

Defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska at the pre-tournament press conference yesterday. "Tennis is getting faster and faster," she said.
Defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska at the pre-tournament press conference yesterday. "Tennis is getting faster and faster," she said.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska at the pre-tournament press conference yesterday. "Tennis is getting faster and faster," she said.
Karolina Pliskova.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska at the pre-tournament press conference yesterday. "Tennis is getting faster and faster," she said.
Garbine Muguruza.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

WTA Finals contenders speak of their goals, strategy and aspirations for the week ahead

The gleaming Billie Jean King trophy was not given a second look by any of the world's top seven women tennis players yesterday as they spoke of their ambition for the week ahead, but the significance of this particular crown to them was obvious.

For it is only after a relentless chase around the world on tour that the year's best eight can be in Singapore to battle for that prized silverware, talking at length - over a total of three hours - during their individual press conferences.

If they had taken a more lingering look at the trophy, however, they might have counted 19 different names engraved on it, of which only one player is here for this year's BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.

Defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska is the only one among the contenders to know what lifting that silver trophy feels like, after she beat Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic last year to claim the biggest title of her career so far.

Known for creative shot-making that has earned her nicknames such as "the ninja" and "la profesora" (the teacher), Radwanska confessed that even she gets surprised by her crafty shots.

Smiling as she spoke at the Marina Bay Sands Expo & Convention Centre, the 27-year-old said: "On court, you don't have much time to think. Tennis is getting faster and faster, and everything is pretty much a reaction.

AN ACE UP HER SLEEVE

I have to serve well and play fast so she doesn't have time to dictate the game. She has to be the one who is running, and not me.

KAROLINA PLISKOVA, on her tactics against Spain's Garbine Muguruza in her WTA Finals debut match tomorrow.

"When I see a particular ball I'm really surprised myself that I did it. It's very interesting that I can surprise myself sometimes as well."

While the third-ranked Pole acknowledged the pressure of being defending champion, she insisted she will remain focused on trying to retain her title.

But she will face a stiff challenge from returning contenders Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza, who will be hoping to place the Billie Jean King trophy beside their respective Grand Slam crowns.

Both won their maiden titles this year. World No. 1 Kerber won the Australian Open and US Open, while No. 6 Muguruza triumphed at the French Open.

Germany's Kerber has never made it past the group stage in her three previous appearances (2012, 2013, 2015), while Spain's Muguruza, undefeated in the round-robin stage last year, was a semi-finalist at last year's singles and doubles competition.

Said Kerber: "I've never played in the semi-finals here, so that's my goal for sure. "But there are still three really tough matches that I have to play, so I will try to take the positives from last year's experience and do better."

The 28-year-old will open her WTA Finals campaign against debutante Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia at the Singapore Indoor Stadium today.

The latter is one of three first-timers at the US$7 million (S$9.76 million) event, alongside American Madison Keys and Czech Karolina Pliskova.

The debutantes are raring to go, even in uncharted territory, but are under no illusions about the quality of the competition that awaits them across the net.

Dressed in training attire, tennis shoes and with hair tied in a pony tail, Cibulkova arrived for her press conference yesterday as if she was ready to hit the court.

Said the world No. 8: "I've never been here so this is a new experience for me, so I want to give 100 per cent on the court and see what happens."

Pliskova, ranked fifth in the world, will unleash her big serve against hard-hitting Muguruza tomorrow.

With a superior 3-1 head-to-head, including a victory in their last encounter in Cincinnati in August, Pliskova will be riding a wave of confidence.

With the highest number of aces on tour this year - 508 from 58 matches - she knows her serve will be her biggest weapon.

"I have to serve well and play fast so she doesn't have time to dictate the game," said Pliskova.

Grinning, she added: "She has to be the one who is running, and not me."

But no one will be doing more of a sprint than Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, the final player to confirm her place and who has about 48 hours between winning the Kremlin Cup in Moscow and arriving in Singapore, where the pursuit of another trophy begins.

Seven players spoke yesterday, in different accents, some in more than one language, to people, cameras, and into microphones.

Today, they stop talking. They play for that trophy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 23, 2016, with the headline 'Tactics under scrutiny'. Print Edition | Subscribe