Angelique Kerber Leads Late-2016 October Winners and Losers

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistOctober 24, 2016

Angelique Kerber Leads Late-2016 October Winners and Losers

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    ROSLAN RAHMAN/Getty Images

    Late October means the tennis year is rapidly closing, and Angelique Kerber pulled out a typical win at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore. She reminded everyone why she has been the most remarkable story and player of the year.

    The ATP tour has been less dramatic with minor tournaments this past week, including titles by Richard Gasquet (Antwerp) and Pablo Carreno Busta (Moscow), but there was a bigger winner at Stockholm who continues his 2016 comeback to stardom.

    All of the past week’s action sets up a star-studded tournament in Singapore and the important stretch run for the ATP’s Race to London. Our "Winner’s and Loser’s" report will fill you in and set you up for another great week of tennis.

Winner: Svetlana Kuznetsova

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    Last week, Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Tianjin semifinal loss seemed to spell the end of the road to Singapore. Her loss was Dominika Cibulkova’s gain for the eighth and final slot.

    Then Serena Williams confirmed she could not play at Singapore. It gave Kuznetsova one more chance to get in, as long as she could win Moscow, while the idle Johanna Konta rested from an abdominal injury.

    Kuznetsova got some home-country support, but she earned her ticket to Singapore with tough tasks against Alize Cornet, Timea Babos, Elina Svitolina and Daria Gavrilova. It was her second title of the year, which bookends nicely with the Sydney title in January. Her best overall effort may have been getting to the Miami final where she lost to Victoria Azarenka.

    It’s also an amazing accomplishment for the 31-year-old star who had made it to Singapore five previous times but not since 2009. Reminders of her past might seem like ancient history, but she did win the 2004 U.S. Open and 2009 French Open.

Loser: Top Superstars Missing at WTA and ATP Year-End Tournament

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    The WTA and ATP year-end tournaments will be missing some star power, to say the least. Serena will not pursue the Singapore title and the No. 1 ranking she lost in the U.S. Open semifinals to Kerber.

    There should be competitive matches at the WTA event with crafty ground games from Kerber, Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska topping the list of stars. Newcomers Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova and Madison Keys bring the firepower.

    But for the second consecutive year, there will be no Serena at Singapore, and that’s a huge loss for the tournament and fans. It also leaves the door open for someone else to cash in for the title.

    The ATP finale in London, early November, will not feature Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Federer has been inactive since January with an injured knee. Nadal withdrew this week because he needs more time for his wrist to recover after time off and sporadic play since June.

    This will be the fifth time in 12 years Nadal has missed the event, but it will be the first time Federer will be absent since 2001 when he was merely an up-and-coming talent mostly famous for upsetting Pete Sampras at Wimbledon that summer. The last time the WTF (called the "Tennis Masters Cup") did not feature Federer, it had Goran Ivanisevic, Andre Agassi, Gustavo Kuerten and Patrick Rafter.

    At least Nadal and Federer were together for the Spaniard’s opening of his new tennis center. The rivalry has cooled, but their friendship grows.

    Let's also hope Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will arrive in top shape, anticipating a possible duel for the year-end No. 1 ranking. If they decide to take a vacation, the ATP may as well cancel the event.

Winner: Jack Sock d. Alexander Zverev

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    American Jack Sock needed a huge win against rising star Alexander Zverev. Although he’s been a prominent doubles player, Davis Cup contributor and a top-25 player, Sock has been looking for a breakthrough to become worthy of the top 20.

    Sock showed his mettle in a resilient, physical win over Zverev in the match of the week, a 6-7(4), 7-6(4), 6-4 semifinal victory at Stockholm that saw him mix solid slice and short angles with his powerful forehand. He needed those change-ups against Zverev who is stronger with his pure baseline power and consistency. He avenged a one-sided loss to Zverev at Beijing earlier this month.

    Sock will move up to a career-high No. 22 and is now the top-ranked American, but he needs similar results if he is to crack the top 20 and become a second-tier contender. Zverev, Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios are younger players with bigger ceilings, but maybe Sock can make that a quartet of young, rising contenders.

    A day later, Sock played a tough first set against Juan Martin del Potro in the final but faded in the second set with obvious fatigue.

Loser: Jimmy Connors' Proposal to Nick Kyrgios

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    File this one under “Comedic Irony.” A week after Nick Kyrgios captured the sports headlines for tanking a match in Shanghai and getting suspended until mid-January 2017, American tennis legend Jimmy Connors offered to mentor the wayward Aussie, according to his tweet, which was explained by the Australian Associated Press and ESPN.com.

    It’s the oddest potential mismatch since…well, Connors attempting to coach Maria Sharapova in 2013, a stint that lasted all of one match.

    The eight-time major legend Connors, known for his brash attitude and gutsy play in the 1970s and 1980s, is a restless figure with a completely different kind of generational outlook when he, Ilie Nastase, John McEnroe and other brazen stars often pushed the envelope on the new professional tour. He is hardly the model of composure, something Kyrgios needs as he tries to assemble a more stable mindset.

    Kyrgios needs to listen to someone, but enlisting Connors is about as likely as trading in his Playstation to listen to 8-track tapes. No way this actually happens.

Winner: Juan Martin Del Potro

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    While most of the ATP stars stagger down the stretch with fatigue or injuries, Juan Martin del Potro took another step forehand in his comeback to prominence. The Argentine clubbed his way to the Stockholm title without dropping a set against some fairly powerful and dangerous players. He ran through John Isner, Nicolas Almagro, Ivo Karlovic, Grigor Dimitrov and Jack Sock.

    Not an easy feat to win a level-250 title, and Del Potro savored his first title in nearly three years.

    "I’ve been trying to fix my problems for the past two years, and I didn’t expect to win a title at this moment in my career," Del Potro said, per ATP World Tour. "I am so happy to get the trophy here. It’s motivation for looking forward to the future."

    He’s up to No. 42 in the ATP rankings, but Del Potro will soon fly into the top 30 and possibly establish himself as a seeded player for the 2017 Australian Open. He could be one of the top few contenders if his wrist and health is optimum. He’s fresh and motivated, and his serve and forehand are a major-winning combination.

Losers: Dominika Cibulkova and Madison Keys

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    Cibulkova had a tough three-set loss to Kerber.
    Cibulkova had a tough three-set loss to Kerber.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    The WTA finals have begun in Singapore, and the first day with the red group saw two different kinds of results. There was Dominika Cibulkova’s spirited fight against world No. 1 Angelique Kerber, and there was Madison Keys’ disappointing 6-2, 6-4 fall to Simona Halep.

    Cibulkova had a torrid October to qualify for Singapore, and she nearly pulled off the Kerber upset, up a break in the third set. She couldn’t hold on against the WTA’s top retriever and most resilient aggressor.

    Keys looked out of sorts with the kind of erratic play that can be her Achilles' heel. She had 16 winners but 41 unforced errors in a match that barely topped one hour. “I just think having a match under my belt there is a little bit less nerves going out next time, and I can go and play with nothing to lose,” Keys said to the post-match media via WTA Tennis.

    But Cibulkova and Keys have already been backed into a corner. They play each other Tuesday with Keys looking at elimination with a loss to Cibulkova, even if she recovers to win a third match. Cibulkova has more hope after winning one set against Kerber, but they each are looking at a "must win."

Winner: Angelique Kerber

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    It did not matter that Serena Williams was unable to play a match since her 2016 U.S. Open semifinal loss. Angelique Kerber clinched her place as "WTA Player of the Year" when she defeated Karolina Pliskova for the U.S. Open title.

    Since, Kerber has been banged-up and playing shakier tennis. If Serena would have been healthy to play Wuhan, Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore, she would have almost assuredly recaptured the No. 1 ranking Kerber snatched in the final weekend of the U.S. Open.

    But the most important stat of all is the Grand Slam titles score: Kerber 2, Serena 1.

    On Friday, Kerber was officially and unanimously voted 2016 WTA Player of the Year, and it’s fitting that she will end the year at No. 1 despite a weary October.

    Kerber got off to a comeback start in Singapore by defeating Cibulkova for a leg up on being one of the two semifinalists from her quartet.

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