If there had been any doubts of Kuznetsova’s energy levels coming into this match, they were surely dispelled in the first set. And it was certainly not that Cibulkova was not playing well – her scrambling and court coverage were second to none.
Maybe it was the very fatigue that up-ended the first set as Kuznetsova was absolutely hammering at everything in a bid to shorten points. It took until the middle of the second set before Cibulkova was even able to get a sniff of break point on the Russian’s serve, finally converting on her third try to take the advantage in the second set.
Experience, fighting spirit, heart or maybe just sheer bloody-mindedness – call it what you will but Kuznetsova hammered straight back leaving the Slovakian wondering what more she had do, to gain an advantage. She responded by working the court well, stepping up her aggression and certainly improving her first serve percentage to stop Kuznetsova from running her ragged on the second serve.
Her aggressive play paid off as she took control of the tie-break to close out the second set to take it to the distance with a weary looking Kuznetsova left the court for a long bathroom break/change of outfit before returning for a straight set shoot out.
First blood in the decider went to Cibulkova despite the long delay, only once more to be pegged back immediately. The tug of war did not stop there, with Kuznetsova breaking once more to take the advantage – eliciting a visit from Cibulkova’s coach and enough time for Kuznetsova to get into a debate with umpire Kader Nouni about her irritating with Cibulkova’s support team (to no avail).
Cibulkova was rewarded for her tenacity by retrieving that elusive break, with her consolidating hold putting her within a game of the final. The final match point indicative of the match as a whole – as Kuznetsova swung the ball wide and Cibulkova collapsed to the floor in tears.
27 winners a-piece and just four unforced errors more for the Russian, but the Slovakian’s aggression just edged the momentum away at the last push.
It has felt like a roller-coaster for us here, so it was understandable that it was a very emotional Kuznetsova at the start of her post-match press conference.
She said: “It’s a bit difficult to look at it back because I’m still thinking about the match. I felt I have opportunities, but of course I went a little bit short because I had too many matches and it was very emotional everything.
“But, yeah, I’m very proud of effort I’ve done. I played many matches I didn’t expect. Such a good ending of the season, and I’m proud of my effort.”
She declined to be pulled into talking about her agitation with the Cibulkova camp, adding that she herself had been ok.
Cibulkova comnmented: “I was just so emotional, so happy, and everything. Yeah, I saw her on her bench so I went there to shake hands. Sometimes you can get upset after the match and that’s normal.
“We are fine, but we are not like best friends on tour, you know. We’re fine, but it wasn’t like we’re going to hug each other. But it was okay.
For the second time in a row a player with a 1-2 record advances to the final, and given all the injury issues of the past year, the achievement was an emotional one.
“It’s a lot of positive emotions. You know, I was just extremely happy that I won today. The match wasn’t going my way all the time but I managed to win it, even I was down, even she was playing really good tennis, really aggressive.
“You know, I find my way to win. Was really, really tough in the ending of the sets, and that’s what made me win today. I’m in the finals and that’s great.”
It is always a tough prediction when you get two of the best runners and perhaps the most creative player on the tour just now on a court together. The speed of the court lends itself to both these players, who have the enviable ability to play flat on the ground and still cover every inch of the court!
It was a nervy start though with neither wanting to keep hold of their serve, so it was Kerber who took the initiative for the first hold, breaking once more to take the first set pretty convincingly. No matter what Radwanska could throw at Kerber, from deft angles and sublime lobs, she would be met with blistering passing shots like yellow furry missiles.
Set two started as a mirror image of the first, with Kerber once more being the first to hold, but from this point the hammer went down, denying Radwanska any other chance to trouble the score-board. While Radwanska has spent a lot of this tournament playing to the advantages that the speed of the court (or lack thereof) gives her, she had to try and be more aggressive in the semi-final to try and hang toe-to-toe with Kerber – and for once the balls were not listening.
“I think I was doing pretty good. Just I couldn’t just make the last shot. There was a pretty tight beginning and couple of tight games as well that I could win, but actually all the games were going one way. Not my way unfortunately.”
Kerber not only starts and ends the year in a final, she will also play Cibulkova for the second time in the tournament.
She said: “First of all, of course I’m really happy to being in the final here for my first time. It’s the last tournament, and of course to finish with a final it’s great. I remember the last year how I was finishing here, so this is big improvement.
“Of course it’s a little bit weird to play against one opponent twice in one tournament. This never happened before for me. I’m looking forward to play against her. The first match here was really tight and close, so she has a lot of confidence from the last two matches she won. Yeah, she has nothing to lose, so I think it will be a good match and final from both of us.”
There is a sense this will come down to confidence versus absolutely nothing to lose. Where we expected a gruelling battle, Kerber was able to handle Radwanska’s attempts to try and inject the same kind of aggression in her game that she developed.
Cibulkova came up against a weary Kuznetsova who started the first set trying to shorten the points and ripping returns to end them quickly, and the first set got away from her very quickly before she managed to turn things around.
Conversely, Kerber has got used to the court and her game has improved match on match. As she pointed out, for those of us who know and follow her closely – her first round matches often send observers on a rollercoaster.
It will be key for Kerber to take the initiative early. We expect her to start strongly, and there is a lot to be said for the experience of having been in big finals this year. Of course Cibulkova is no stranger to a Slam final, but she freely admitted that at the time she perhaps lacked the belief to carry it through.
“Playing your first Grand Slam it was really tough – really tough in the finals. I’m happy I have this experience or something like this. For me to go on the finals in Australia, you know, I was trying to do my best but I wasn’t convinced I could really win.
“With this experience now I’m a different player. Tomorrow I will go there and just want to win.”
Kerber not only leads Cibulkova by an edge in their head to head, she is on a five match-winning streak. Cibulkova can expect another close match, where the margins will be very slim.
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