The late night match on Sunday will see the world number one, Angelique Kerber start her campaign in Singapore against WTA Finals newbie, Dominika Cibulkova. The pair will meet for the first time in 2016 and are currently split at 4-4 in their head-to-head.
Superlatives don’t do Kerber’s year any justice… Australian Open champion, US Open champion and Olympic sliver medallist. Also chuck in the defence of her Stuttgart title with a whole heap of pressure to deal with and a whopping 59 victories and it’s all been pretty dreamy. Kerber’s become a mental giant this year, managing to find the balance of defence and attack, and the right moments to take more chances. The world number one has also injected nuggets of variety into her game and the drop shot has been a welcome addition to her repertoire.
There was the slightest of wobbles for Kerber after winning the Australian Open with early losses in Doha and Indian Wells – compared to recent first time Slam winners, i’d say Kerber has handled the situation better than anyone. Kerber also struggled on clay where she didn’t win a match on outdoor clay. Aside from the French Open where she lost in the first round to Kiki Bertens, she reached the final at the other three Slams. More recently, Kerber’s form simmered through Asia including a 3-6 1-6 loss to Daria Gavrilova in her last match in Hong Kong. While it was an odd decision to play after such a bruising summer, I don’t think it was a worrying loss and hopefully she will schedule a bit smarter in 2017.
Cibulkova’s come close to reaching the WTA Finals before but this year she made it thanks to a superb post-US Open run. Cibulkova dropped down to number 66 in the rankings in February after losing in the first round of the Australian Open where she was defending quarter-final points. Her level was clearly coming back (she had missed the first half of 2016 to have surgery on her achilles) but the draws were brutal; Cibulkova drew Agnieszka Radwanska and Garbiñe Muguruza in the second rounds of Indian Wells and Miami respectively, pushing both the distance but just coming up short, losing 7-5 in the third sets of both matches.
Cibulkova won her first title of the year in Katowice and just a few weeks later, she had the big win she had been zoning for – after failing to put away Radwanska in the second set, Cibulkova rebounded for a fabulous three set win in the first round of Madrid. Cibulkova reached the final of the Premier Mandatory tournament and put herself in a great position for Singapore by producing her best ever grass court season; she won Eastbourne and reached the last eight at Wimbledon where she beat Radwanska at both tournaments and played arguably the best match of her life at the latter.
It wasn’t a surprise to see Cibulkova take a breather during the summer in her results after an exhilarating but physically demanding grass court season. Cibulkova produced a 7-5 W-L record between Stanford (July) and Tokyo (September), but most impressively, brought it back when it mattered; she reached the final of Wuhan and then won in Linz to secure her place at the prestigious WTA Finals. Cibulkova scrapped her way through the Wuhan draw with a series of resilient displays, but her performances in Linz were a step above and reminiscent of the tennis she produced during the first half of the year where her punishing groundstrokes and choking intensity saw her soar up the rankings.
Head-to-head record: Kerber and Cibulkova are tied at 4-4 in their head-to-head; Cibulkova won their first four meetings between 2008 and 2013 with wins in Paris, Melbourne, Sydney and Toronto. Kerber has won their last four matches between 2014 and 2015 with victories in Sydney, Bratislava (Fed Cup), Tokyo and Beijing. Their most recent encounter in China was last year where Kerber won, 6-1 6-4.
Interesting stat about Kerber: Kerber has won eight out of her eleven matches against top ten players in 2016. Furthermore, she’s won 22 of 27 three set matches this year.
Interesting stat about Cibulkova: Cibulkova’s currently at her best ever win percentage for a year, posting a 52-19 W-L record in 2016. She’s also posted remarkable stats in three setters this year, winning 19 matches that have gone the distance – Cibulkova came from a set down in 14 of those matches.
Final thoughts: This is one of my favourite match-ups from the round robin group stage, mostly because we haven’t seen it on the tour in 2016. A lot has changed since their last meeting in Beijing with Kerber now a multiple Slam champ but also, Cibulkova displaying some of the best tennis of her career. Cibulkova heads into the tournament with much the better form and also indoors too with a superb run in Linz where she didn’t drop a set en route to the title. Kerber’s recent performances have been well below the lofty level she has set herself in 2016 but she will have had a week to rest and prepare for Singapore.
One note about Kerber – on the whole, she’s brought her A-game to the big tournaments this year. Whenever i’ve felt like she might come unstuck, she’s done a handy job at proving me wrong!
But you can see where i’m going with this one… I like Domi’s chances in this opener.