The 46th edition of the WTA Finals last week, the third successive one to be held in Singapore, saw a new name lift the Billie Jean King Trophy as top-ranked Slovak Dominika Cibulkova produced a star-studded performance to see her through to her biggest career title. The achievement assures the Slovak her top five debut and a top five finish to a stellar 2016 campaign.
Last week’s titlist
27-year-old Dominika Cibulkova’s last 34 months has seen her go through the most trying and most rewarding periods of her career. After a splendid start to the 2014 season, making her first Grand Slam final at the Australian Open and amassing a 24-10 record through the first four months of that year, her form took a hiccup as she failed to make it to the quarterfinals in her remaining events of the year save one, the Toray Pan Pacific Open. Nevertheless, she recorded her best season finish at that time, ending 2014 ranked number 11.
The Slovak looked set to regain steam in 2015 and continue her progress up the rankings. However, after last eight finishes in Melbourne and Antwerp, she stumbled upon bad news as an Achilles injury cropped out. A surgery in March forced her out of competition the next three months. Returning to the tour in June, Cibulkova’s road back was not an easy one, but quarterfinal and semifinal results, in New Haven and Tokyo respectively, in the latter half of the year guaranteed her an eighth successive top 40 finish to the season, ending the year at 38th.
Cibulkova began 2016 by reaching the semifinals in Hobart but an early exit in Melbourne saw her fall to as low as 66th, having failed to defend quarterfinal points from the previous year and now, she had to start from scratch once again. The first stage of her comeback to the top began in St. Petersburg where she made the last eight and soon followed this up by reaching the final in Acapulco where she was stopped by Sloane Stephens. She then suffered a couple of tough tight losses to Agnieszka Radwanska and Garbiñe Muguruza in Indian Wells and Miami respectively but bounced back to win her first title of the year in Katowice, her first title since winning Acapulco in 2014.
Her standout results on clay and grass this year include a runner-up finish in Madrid, winning her second title of the year in Eastbourne and then making her second Wimbledon quarterfinal. By now, Cibulkova had gone from 66th and found herself on the cusp of a top 10 return, sitting at 12th. However, despite reaching the semifinals in Stanford in July, a string of early losses in the coming weeks followed suit as she won back-to-back matches in just one of her next four tournaments.
Looking to finish the season on a good note, Cibulkova came back strong by making the final in Wuhan where she was defeated by Petra Kvitova before going on to win her third title of the year in Linz. Her triumph in Linz ensured her qualification for her maiden WTA Finals appearance, it marked the first time a Slovak qualified for the year-end championships since Daniela Hantuchova in 2007. By now, the Slovak already had amassed exactly 50 wins, hitting the 50-win mark per season for the first time in her career. Prior to the WTA Finals, Cibulkova was announced as the winner of the WTA Comeback Player of the Year award.
As the seventh seed in Singapore, Cibulkova faced world number one Angelique Kerber in the opening match of the round robin stage and gave the top seed a run for her money but lost in three sets. She was then blown off the court by sixth seed Madison Keys in her second rubber but rebounded strongly by defeating 2014 finalist and third seed Simona Halep in straight sets.
Courtesy of her straight set win over Halep and Kerber’s straight set defeat of Keys, Cibulkova finished second in the group and joined Kerber in the semifinals. There, she faced eighth seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, who finished on top in the other group, and scored a commendable victory over the Russian to book her place in the final, a rematch against Kerber, this time with the title at stake.
The Slovak was very much the underdog entering the championship round but played one her best matches ever to upset the world number one 6-3, 6-4 to lift the biggest title of her career on her debut appearance at the WTA Finals, becoming just the fourth player to do so after Serena Williams (2001), Maria Sharapova (2004) and Kvitova (2011). Her Singapore accomplishment, her fourth title of the year, also assures Cibulkova finishes 2016 with the most titles of any other player on tour. An amazing season it has been for the small-stature but powerful and vibrant Slovak, having racked in four trophies, half of her overall haul of eight titles, finishing the year with 53 wins, her most in a season to date and almost four million dollars in prize money.
The two players from Cibulkova’s group who did not advance out of the group stage were Halep and Keys. Meanwhile, in the other group, Kuznetsova was joined by second seed and defending champion Radwanska in the semifinals after the Pole defeated fourth seed Karolina Pliskova in the decisive round robin match. The other player from this group who did not make the semifinal cut was sixth seed Muguruza, last year’s semifinalist. Kerber ended Radwanska’s title defence in the last four, beating the Pole with the loss of just three games to advance to the final.
Her first ever final appearance at the WTA Finals sees world number one Kerber solidify her position atop the rankings, the German now 2000 points ahead of second-ranked Serena Williams. Also finishing the season in the top four rankings are Radwanska and Halep, who are place at third and fourth respectively.
Cibulkova records her top five debut at number five after her triumph in Singapore, thus equalling Hantuchova’s career-high ranking of fifth as the all-time highest ranked Slovak player of either gender. The Slovak’s ascent sees Pliskova, Muguruza and Keys move down one spot. Kuznetsova sits at ninth place with Johanna Konta at number 10.
This week’s action
The WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, China begins this week and it will serve as the closing tournament to the 2016 season. Spearheaded by the likes of Konta and Kvitova, who lead the charge of 12 players who will all look to end their season on a good note by winning the title.