When a player steps put for what could potentially be the last match of the year with painful strapping on her knee, there is a feeling of dread that what could be an epic conclusion to a well matched group could fizzle to an anti-climax.
The frustrations of Cibulkova in her match against Keys meant she had originally cut quite a sad figure until she was informed in her press conference that she was still in with a shout. Halep was equally downbeat but has been around the block here and knows that sometimes is the last day that counts the most.
Prior to this week, Halep had manage to nibble back the deficit to 2-3 with her win over the Slovak at Madrid, but looking hindered by knee strapping, as Cibulkova came out with focus, drive and quickly jumped out to a 3-0 lead. What little impact she was able to make, still kept her behind with the only break point chance coming at the start of the set for Cibulkova.
But with scenarios still in play, the second set saw a lot more momentum shifts with the trading of breaks back and forth. Halep did her level best to stay in contention at every stage, pushing to a tie-break.
Maybe there it completely unravelled – a thrilling long point, won by Halep left the Romanian looking winded and in a way probably sealed the deal regarding the breaker. Evenly matched up to 5-5, Cibulkova broke for the match.
It was a tough loss for Halep – this is the second time in a row that she has not qualified after her explosive debut in 2014, but there is a lot for her to be happy about, as she did explain.
“This tournament was a bonus for me. At the middle of the year I said that I cannot qualify because I was very far after four months, tough four months. But once I qualified I say that it’s a bonus, and I have just to give everything I have. I didn’t have enough to qualify in the semis, but it was a good experience again, third year in a row, so it’s a good thing.”
Her off-season starts here – so what was the first thing she wanted to do?
“Home to see my niece, to see my family, and to chill, to do nothing. Yeah, like days in a row do nothing. Maybe ten days I’m thinking now and then I go to the gym, but tennis for sure almost three weeks.”
From feeling down and out after two losses, it was a great turnaround for the Slovakian.
“This win is really, really big for me. Really big for me. I feel relieved. I’m really, really happy about my win, about the way I played and the way I handled the situation and the pressure.
“It seems like I’m playing my best tennis under biggest pressure. You know, it’s just a great feeling, you know, to beat Simona in two sets knowing that if I want to go further in the tournament I have to beat her in two sets. That made me even stronger in the second set.”
What is less clear is when she can officially call time on her season, as she explained.
“I was like, Okay if I lose today, tomorrow we fly for holidays. So we booked — no, we didn’t book the flight, but it was like, Okay, if I lose today we fly tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. to holidays.
“So I just give everything into this match today. I knew it could be possibly the last. All the circumstances made me play really well today. I just find out I cannot fly tomorrow because if I stay third then I have to stay here as alternate to wait for the girls. But I hope to stay second in the group.”
Angelique Kerber  def. Madison Keys  6-3 6-3
What started out as an almost identical repeat of last year’s dilemma for the World No. 1 fizzled out in a little under half an hour, as Cibulkova nailing the first set guaranteed that Kerber advanced into the semi-finals without even having to strike a ball.
With a pretty solid record against the young American, her only loss coming at the Eastbourne final in 2014, Kerber looked ready to swing for the fences, breaking first.
Keys has played so much better since getting over the nerves that really seemed to inhibit her in the first round robin match as the pair bashed through four more successive breaks with Kerber breaking just once more to take the first set.
Perhaps her concentration dipped as Keys broke at the start of the second set – but variety and experience makes all the difference at a time like this. Kerber struck the blow with two breaks mid-way through an equally competitive second set with the only break points chances coming in those three games.
She reflected: “I think today I definitely again played with nerves. I think big thing for me that I need to work on is being able to separate my feelings and emotions from my matches. I think when it’s a high-stress situation my tennis definitely takes a big dip. That’s something I’m gonna have to work on.”
With some sense of relief, but also that quiet swagger we have seen during the summer, Kerber talked about the switch in circumstances for her and for Keys.
“It was for sure different situation than last year. I knew that I’m already in the semis, but still I’m always going out there to win the match. I think I learned so much from the last match what I lost here against [Lucie] Safarova one year ago. I think today it was easier, but I was trying to not thinking about this, that I’m already in the semis.
“I was trying to going out there and playing the match, because I know that Madison was in the same situation I was in last year.”
She has had progressively easier results as she has gone through the tournament and there is a lot to be said for finishing up with a 3-0 run into the semi-finals.
“For me it was important to going out there to win the match and win all three matches. And now to going with three really good matches to the semis, that gives me a lot of more confidence. Feels like a tournament, you know. I know that I won three matches and I’m in the semis right now, so it’s not that you lose one or two and still in the semis. So for me and my rhythm it’s actually a good to be in the semis.”
If you are going to banish those demons – do it with a serve to love! Kerber advanced into the semi-finals for the first time in four attempts and she will face either Karolina Pliskova or defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska – who play for their spot in the semi-final after Svetlana Kuznetsova qualified top of the group no matter what scenario plays out.
Muguruza and Kuznetsova are scheduled not before 4pm (9am BST) with Radwanska and Pliskova not before 7:30pm (12:30pm, BST).
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