WTA Finals Singapore and Andy Murray Top Tennis' Weekly Winners and Losers

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistOctober 31, 2016

WTA Finals Singapore and Andy Murray Top Tennis' Weekly Winners and Losers

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    The WTA Finals was a rousing week of tennis that featured world No. 1 Angelique Kerber and a blend of rising veterans and newcomers to Singapore’s year-end extravaganza. It seemed like Kerber would sweep her way to the title, until Dominika Cibulkova survived the odds and then seized her opportunity with perhaps the finest match of her career.

    In the ATP, two important tournaments opened up doors for Andy Murray and Marin Cilic. The Scot is ready to assume the No. 1 ranking, possibly in one week with a Paris Masters title. The Croatian could prove to be an important factor at Paris, both to secure his own ATP World Tour Finals position and possibly to remove Djokovic from the No. 1 path.

    Find out more of the details to these stories and examine which of the “Winners and Losers” were able to put their stamps on the ongoing superstar tennis saga.

Loser: Garbine Muguruza

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    What’s wrong with Garbine Muguruza? Nearly five months after winning the French Open title, the 23-year-old Spaniard has faded with some rather uninspiring play. Despite her 6' height, athleticism and enviable groundstrokes of power and topspin, Muguruza and her No. 6 ranking are a mirage.

    Consider her only title in 2016 was that Roland Garros gem. Her 35-20 record is an underachieving mark for sure, and a look back at the year shows she only made it as far as the semifinals in two other big tournaments—Rome and Cincinnati.

    These days, Muguruza rarely beams with her pleasant smile. She lost her first two matches at Singapore to Karolina Pliskova and Agnieszka Radwanska before salvaging a meaningless win against Svetlana Kuznetsova who had already clinched the top spot in her group.

    Muguruza could finally play without pressure in that third round-robin match. She looks good when things are going well, but things have not been easy lately.

    There's still every opportunity for a bright future after winning her first major in 2016, but it seems Muguruza's struggles have been more between the ears than with her skills.

Winner: Andy Murray

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    There was little doubt Andy Murray would run through Vienna and pick up the championship plus 500 ATP ranking points. The super Scot pulls within 415 points of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, so close he can sniff his first real chance to get to the top of the ATP.

    The Battle for No.1 is front and center this week at the Paris Masters. Murray will look to win the title and hope Djokovic does not get through Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka or Dominic Thiem.

    Murray must probably defeat a few dangerous foes like Lucas Pouille, Milos Raonic or Kei Nishikori. (Murray could also grab No. 1 in getting to the Paris final if Djokovic does not make it past the quarterfinals where he could meet Basel champion Cilic.)

    At age 29, Murray would be the oldest player to reach No. 1 for the first time, and he’s seeking to become the second-oldest year-end No. 1 behind Ivan Lendl's 1989 season. (Oddly, Lendl won that honor by winning only one major title, while Boris Becker could not pass him despite winning two majors in 1989.)

    Murray or Djokovic? They could be battling for No. 1 for several months ahead.

Loser: 'The Power Three' at Singapore

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    Karolina Pliskova could not get to the semifinals at Singapore.
    Karolina Pliskova could not get to the semifinals at Singapore.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Power tennis can always impress. When a power player is in her zone, she can make the game look easy and downright dominating.

    Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza and Madison Keys were the three true power players at Singapore last week (Unfortunately the queen of power players, Serena Williams could not play.) Muguruza was eliminated quickly, Keys was dominated twice and Pliskova was swept in her decider against Agnieszka Radwanska.

    Was it the slower courts with the higher bounces that allowed their gritty opponents more time and control? Was it youth and inexperience that led to more unforced errors and less impact with their serves?

    Or maybe Angelique Kerber, Agnieszka Radwanska and Simona Halep are just better, for now. Svetlana Kuznetsova and Dominika Cibulkova showed more heart and consistency, and they won all four of the semifinal slots.

    Although none of the "Power Three" made it to the semifinals, each of them can head into the offseason with a bittersweet taste. They made it to Singapore, but they have another year to leap forward.

Winner: Marin Cilic

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    Marin Cilic is one of the classiest stars on the ATP tour, so it's been gratifying to see him bounce back from a tough five-set Wimbledon quarterfinals loss to Roger Federer. Since, Cilic has been a Davis Cup hero and conqueror of Cincinnati’s Western & Southern Open.

    Add in the past week's level-500 title at Basel and suddenly Cilic is in position to qualify for the World Tour Finals in London. The big Croatian knocked out Kei Nishikori with superior serving and forehand power, reminiscent of the way he dominated the Japanese star for the 2014 U.S. Open title.

    Cilic can clinch his ticket to London with a strong run at Paris. He could clash with Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, and with some of the questions surrounding Djokovic’s slump, it could be Cilic as the favorite in that one. This could also be the swing vote for Andy Murray's mission to claim the No. 1 ranking.

Loser: Simona Halep

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    Simona Halep could really use a break. She's been one of the world's top players for three years, including five Premier titles and runner-up at the 2014 French Open. If only she could break through for that major title or even the WTA Finals in Singapore.

    Halep had every chance to get to the semifinals upon blasting Madison Keys in the opening round-robin match. After losing to world No.1 Angelique Kerber, Halep still controlled her own destiny, needing to win only one set against Dominika Cibulkova. Instead, she was swept by Cibulkova’s rising aggressiveness and go-for-broke forehand.

    The end result was Halep was sent packing, while Cibulkova seized the match and went on to the ultimate victory of 2016.

    Maybe it should have been Halep to seize the moment, but she still seems reticent to play all-out, or at least she was the more passive player as the favorite. Someday Halep could get a major title or win the WTA Finals, but once again she must stand aside.

Winner: Svetlana Kuznetsova

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    What a renaissance from Svetlana Kuznetsova. Twelve years ago, a lifetime in tennis years, the Russian was the U.S. Open champion. She would climb to No. 3 in 2007, and she was the 2009 French Open champion. During that period she qualified for the year-end WTA Finals five times in six years.

    Then Kuznetsova dropped off the map for nearly seven years.

    She was a sneaky surprise to return to Singapore, and this only happened because Serena Williams vacated her slot as one of the Elite Eight. She also had to do her part in winning Moscow’s championship.

    Kuznetsova kept her momentum with enormous Singapore group-play wins over Agnieszka Radwanska and Karolina Pliskova. At age 31, she made it to the semifinals for the first time.

    There's a lot to love about her tenacity in winning those three-setters, but the most memorable moment was when she cut off part of her ponytail before the third set against Radwanska. She explained to the media (via BBC Sport), "It was bothering me a lot. When I was hitting the forehands, I hit a good shot, and it would hit my eye. I thought, 'What's more important? My hair, which can grow, or the match?"

    Perhaps a buzz cut in the semifinals might have helped her past eventual winner Dominika Cibulkova, but instead she lost a tough three-setter. We’ll never know.

Loser: Angelique Kerber

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    Time to nitpick. Yes, Angelique Kerber lost to an inspired and hot opponent in the WTA Finals, bowing 6-3, 6-4 to Dominika Cibulkova, perhaps the least likely player at Singapore who could overpower her defense. But Kerber did not play with her usual aggressive poise either.

    Was Kerber stunned that Cibulkova got in 83 percent of her first serves or that her opponent was the one who had improved the most after narrowly losing their match one week ago in group play?

    Regardless, Kerber played with too much defensive passivity. She stabbed at the ball more often than usual when she had time to get her feet set. She poked back too many short shots and committed 23 unforced errors with 14 desperate winners.

    Kerber should be proud of her phenomenal year in 2016, winning two majors and building on her No. 1 ranking at 2,030 points over Serena Williams. Alternately, there were some tough championship losses that led to "silver medals" at Wimbledon, the Olympics, Cincinnati and the WTA Finals.

    No question Kerber was the biggest winner of 2016 and for Singapore right up to the final. But this was an opportunity she probably will not get again, and she went down to a player who showed more energy and heart, ironically taking a page right out of the Kerber handbook.

Winner: Dominika Cibulkova

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    A few weeks ago, it looked like Dominika Cibulkova had blown her opportunity to qualify for one of the eight spots at Singapore's WTA Finals. She lost her first match at Beijing and needed to run the table at Linz and get some help from other results.

    Cibulkova rose to the occasion and won Linz.

    Then she lost a close opening match to world No. 1 Angelique Kerber to open group play in Singapore. She was blown out by the more powerful Madison Keys. It was a long shot to make the semifinals. She had to upset Simona Halep in straight sets and hope Kerber could sweep Keys.

    Cibulkova rose to the occasion and got the necessary help from Kerber.

    From there, the Slovak edged out Svetlana Kuznetsova and might have been the more fatigued player facing Kerber as an improbable finalist.

    Cibulkova rose to the occasion and overwhelmed Kerber.

    It was more than her aggressive forehand and precision that had an awesome 28-to-14 count of winners to unforced errors. It was more than her 83 percent conversion rate of first serves and even winning seven of 10 second serves.

    It was grit, heart and a fearless mentality to attack the world No. 1. Other than shakiness in closing out the match, Cibulkova suddenly looked like a legitimate top-five player, and she is now rewarded with the WTA Finals trophy and the No. 5 ranking.

    "I just knew what I have to do" Cibulkova said in WTA Tennis. "I think I didn't let her into the match really today with my aggressive game. I had just one goal. I was going after it. I think it was tough for her to do something on the court today."

    Could she be a big story in 2017, perhaps the next version of what Kerber did in 2016? It's not as improbable after tasting success.