SINGAPORE - World No.1 Angelique Kerber made a winning start to her campaign at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, but she was made to work every step of the way by an inspired Dominika Cibulkova.
Kerber has never made it out of the group stage at her previous three appearances in the WTA Finals, but she looks well on her way to do so this time around, winning 7-6(5), 2-6, 6-3 in a two- hour and 10-minute encounter to close out the night in Singapore.
"It was for sure a little bit better than the last match I played here against Safarova last year, but it's always tough to play the first matches here," Kerber told press after the match.
"Of course the pressure is not really big for me, but it's a new situation."
Cibulkova came into the matchup locked at 4-4 in the pair's head-to-head, with the German claiming the last four matches in straight sets. The Slovak put early nerves behind her - she dropped serve in the first game of the match - and fended off the World No.1 with a stinging backhand down the line for 4-4.
? WTA (@WTA) October 23, 2016
"I felt pretty good out there, apart from the beginning, when I was? well I can't say nervous but I was maybe too excited in the beginning," Cibulkova explained in her post-match press conference.
"I was a little too much emotional in the first set, I was too much into the game because this is something new for me."
Both players are stalwarts at the baseline, able to chase down every ball and move well side to side, and they wrestled with the momentum as the set went into a tiebreak. But it was Cibulkova who blinked first, sailing a forehand just long to give Kerber the set.
Despite narrowly missing out on the hour-long opening set, Cibulkova came roaring back in the second and showed no signs of fatigue as she climbed to a commanding 4-0 lead. The German struggled to put depth on her powerful groundstrokes, which sat up enticingly for Cibulkova to pounce on. Kerber did well to get a break back and cut into Cibulkova's lead, but the Slovak powered though to send the match into a deciding set.
Cibulkova kept Kerber under pressure throughout the first few games of the set, but the World No.1 proved why she'd earned that ranking when she rallied back, wielding her rock-solid defense and all-court movement. She took the next five of six games to claim her first victory of the tournament in Singapore.
? WTA (@WTA) October 23, 2016
The match stats reveal just how tight the encounter was: both finished with +7 on their winners and unforced errors count, with Kerber at 34 winners to 27 unforced errors and Cibulkova at 40 and 33.
"In this game it's all about the small details, and she was a bit more consistent in some games and that's what made her win today," Cibulkova assessed.
"I have my first match already behind me, and I know I'll be ready for my second one. It makes a difference to know I'm not leaving tomorrow."
The victory puts Kerber at No.2 in the Red Group standings, right behind table leader Simona Halep who won in straight sets earlier in the day. But despite the loss, the tight scoreline leaves Cibulkova in a good position to continue in the group stage, sitting in third.