The setting, the stakes, the field: There’s something about the WTA Finals that creates the perfect conditions for classic matches. That has been as true as ever in Singapore so far. The tournament began with Angelique Kerber’s full-tilt 7-6 (5), 2-6, 6-3 win over Dominika Cibulkova on Sunday, and if anything it got more dramatic on Monday, when Svetlana Kuznetsova walked off a plane from Moscow and saved a match point on her way to beating No. 2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, 7-5, 1-6, 7-5.
Kerber is no stranger to the classic-match effect at this tournament. She played and lost one of the fiercest contests of the decade, to Victoria Azarenka in three hours, in Istanbul in 2012; it’s hard to imagine that anyone who watched will ever forget it. But what Kerber was less familiar with, before this year, was winning any of those season-ending epics. Coming into Singapore, she was a dismal 2-7 at the WTA Finals. That’s not a record worthy of the No. 1 player she has become in 2016.
Maybe Kerber recognized that fact, because she has played up to her top-seeded status in Singapore. She held off a hard-charging Cibulkova on Sunday, and then came back to thoroughly demoralize her closest rival in the Red Group, Simona Halep, 6-4, 6-2, on Tuesday. In the process, Kerber showed why she has become a new player in 2016, and given us a glimpse of what the next step may be for her in 2017.
“I have much more confidence right now,” Kerber said over the weekend. “I know how to play the big tournaments. Also, mentally, how to win really tough matches in tough situations, like playing finals in big tournaments, big stages. So this changed a lot [for me] as a player.”
Kerber has said that the biggest change for her this season was her newfound determination to win by playing aggressively, rather than primarily with defense. By the middle of the season, you could hear the change in her words.
“I’m going to play my game” became her mantra on her way to the Wimbledon final. In the past, her game had always been retrieving. Now, in Kerber’s mind, when she said she would play “my game,” it was a given that she meant she was going to attack.
But old habits die very hard, and that goes double for 28-year-old tennis players, even when they happen to be the best in the world. What has been interesting over the second half of the season, and again in Singapore, is watching her fight her natural instinct to take a step back and defend. Kerber doesn’t always win that battle with herself, but she has found a way to pick her spots and stand her ground at just the right time.
In the closing stages of the third set against Cibulkova, the hard-hitting Slovak started to push Kerber around. That is, until Kerber took a very delibarate step forward in the court in the last two games. It was clear that Kerber felt this was what she needed to do, and equally clear that she was determined to win the match, rather than waiting for her opponent to lose it.
Something similar happened in the first set against Halep. Kerber got out to an early lead, but Halep turned the tables in the middle of the first set and had a break point to go up 5-3. At that moment, Halep had the initiative in the rallies while Kerber was rushing and looking anxiously toward her player box.
Then Kerber took that step forward again. This time it came when Halep left a crosscourt backhand a little short. Kerber moved forward and sent a forehand down the line, an inch or two from the sideline, for a game-saving winner. Halep rolled her head and stared at the ceiling. She would only win two more games. Kerber’s shot, and its momentum-changing result, was a carbon copy of the line-clipping forehand that she hit in the third set of the U.S. Open final against Karolina Pliskova.
Kerber has been involved in a lot of epic contests over the years, in part because her defense is a good match for her opponents’ offense. Now, by injecting just enough of her own offense, she’s winning more of those matches. Will it be enough to give her one more big title to close out a dream 2016? Singapore, in a sense, will be the tiebreaker for her: While Kerber won the Australian Open and U.S. Open, she came up one match short at Wimbledon and the Olympics.
Whatever happens this week, she has a winning template for 2017. Kerber knows that for her, winning is often just a step away.