WTA Finals Singapore, 2016: Kerber the belated winner, with nothing to lose
It took a vigilant Twitter follower to spot the unexpected vote in the WTA’s recent Instagram poll to determine its player-of-the-year; the one cast by Serena Williams, 22-time major winner and five-time season-ending No.1. No rationale, but just the one word: Kerber
World No. 1 and US Open champion Angelique Kerber. Photo: Getty Images
Back in January, Angelique Kerber had upstaged Williams at the Australian Open to finally claim her first singles slam on her 33rd attempt – thus becoming the popular new poster girl for perseverance. The most recent of the 28-year-old’s three titles for 2016 was a second of the super-sized variety, the US Open, and with a debut Wimbledon final as the cucumber in the sandwich, she ended Williams’ 186-week reign atop the world rankings in September, as the oldest first-time No.1.
The full-stop on the German’s exclamation mark can be inked over the next week at the WTA Finals in Singapore, host of the season-ending tournament for the top eight women qualifiers in the annual race to a $9.17 million pot of gold. Williams will be missing, as she was in 2015, this time due to the shoulder injury that has sidelined the great American since Czech Karolina Pliskova helped to engineer her semi-final exit at Flushing Meadows six weeks ago.
Which leaves the Singapore stage to Kerber and co; including world No.3 and defending champion Agniezska Radwanska, Simona Halep and French Open winner Garbine Muguruza. The show must go on, even if Williams and the banned Maria Sharapova are both on pause, providing room for debutantes Pliskova, Madison Keys and Dominika Cibulkova. Either Briton Johanna Konta or Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova will complete the field, with the last spot hinging on Saturday’s Kremlin Cup final.
Kerber has been at the season-ending event three times before, including last year, when she needed to win just one set in her last round-robin match against Lucie Safarova to qualify for a maiden semi-final, only to lose 6-4, 6-3. Yet despite being angry with the tournament format, frustrated with her game and surly with her coach, that experience counts as one of the signposts in Kerber’s remarkable reinvention; she is a much different player now, calmer and more confident, fitter and bolder.
The left-hander has also gone from chasing to chased, however. A silver medallist behind surprise golden girl Monica Puig at the Rio Olympics, Kerber has reached just one quarter-final in three tournaments since the US Open. Yet clear favouritism is hers in Singapore, where the left-hander’s strong Red Group is completed by Halep, Keys and Cibulkova.
“I know it will be a tough one, because they are the best eight players and everybody plays well, so I’m really looking forward to this new competition and for a new challenge,” Kerber said in Singapore.
“It’s a new situation for me as well, and I’m looking forward to the last tournament of the year. I’m feeling very confident. I mean, I had an amazing year with everything that happened, just crazy,, and I just try to improving myself and of course try to enjoy it right now.”
Just as Kerber did, briefly, after her Melbourne Park who-would-have-thought moment, Muguruza, too, has struggled in the wake of her first slam success, and all that comes with it. The Spanish world No.6 was felled in the second round of both Wimbledon and the US Open, her only slam major result of note coming with a semi-final showing in Cincinnati.
“When you reach such a high peak, you have to go down a little bit, so it was hard for me to deal with that and my expectations,” said Muguruza, a semi-finalist in Singapore last year. “I”ve learnt a little bit about how to manage all this, and I think I’m still learning – to be calm, focused and not get too nervous.”