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Top-seeded Kerber toils in win vs. Cibulkova at WTA Finals

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SINGAPORE — Top-seeded Angelique Kerber struggled to defeat seventh-seeded Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (5), 2-6, 6-3 on the opening day of the WTA Finals in Singapore on Sunday.

Kerber, who secured the top ranking last month, battled Cibulkova for 2 hours, 17 minutes before the Slovakian finally succumbed.

“It was a really good match from both of us, especially the first set,” Kerber said. “It’s a good start to the tournament like this, where you knew you had to play your best to win.”

Earlier on Sunday, third-seeded Simona Halep won the first match of the round-robin portion of the tournament by taking a 6-2, 6-4 decision over sixth-seeded American Madison Keys.

In Red Group action, Kerber and Halep stand at 1-0, while Keys and Cibulkova are at 0-1.

On Tuesday, Kerber will play Halep, while Cibulkova and Keys, both making their WTA Finals debut, will play each other.

Kerber posted 29 winners and 32 unforced errors to 36 winners and 34 unforced errors for Cibulkova.

Cibulkova dropped serve in the opening game of the match, which initially allowed Kerber to establish a 4-2 lead in the first set.

Kerber didn’t hold on to the advantage, surrendering her own serve on a second double-fault in the eighth game.

That sent the first set to a tiebreaker where the German eventually prevailed.

“At the beginning I was too excited, but after a few games I started to play my game,” Cibulkova said. “It was a really tough one, really close, and in these kind of games it’s about the small details.”

Cibulkova dominated the second set, racing to 4-0 lead.

In the third, Cibulkova was temporarily in charge with a 2-0 lead, but lost five of the next six games to end up on the losing side of the result.

It’s been a stellar season for Kerber, who won her first two Grand Slam titles at the Australian and US Opens, and also brought home the Olympic silver medal from Rio.

Kerber’s never journeyed beyond the round-robin stage of the WTA Finals in three previous appearances in 2012, 2013 and 2015.

In the opening match, Keys played erratic tennis throughout the 69-minute contest, losing serve on four of 10 break points faced.

“I definitely think there were some nerves,” Keys said. “I think one of her strengths is making you feel like you have to go for more and take the risks. I think sometimes she makes me uncomfortable and I back away from playing my game.”

Keys held serve in the opening game of the match, but then saw Halep win the next five games for a 5-1 lead in the first set.

Halep lost an initial 4-2 lead in the second set, but from 4-4 won the final two games.

The Romanian reached the final here in 2014 and now holds a 5-1 head-to-head record against Keys.

“I think I played exactly what I had to play against her,” Halep said. “I was focused. Everything went as I wanted, so I’m happy.”

Naomi Osaka on her way up with first pro tennis title

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) Naomi Osaka had just won the first title of her career and was waiting to be introduced for her post-match comments.

The 20-year-old from Japan had prepared, knowing what she was going to say and in what order.

But then her name was called.

“I freaked out,” she said. “I just started saying whatever came into my mind first, which is why I think I kept stopping halfway through my sentences, because I just remembered something else I had to say. That was pretty embarrassing.”

The crowd of 18,347 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on Sunday seemed to sense Osaka’s nervousness, something she worked hard to hide during a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Daria Kasatkina of Russia in the BNP Paribas Open final.

“I was extremely stressed and extremely nervous,” Osaka said. “But my plan was to, like, fake that I’m very calm.”

As hesitant as she was behind the mic, Osaka was polished and professional in dismantling Kasatkina, a fellow 20-year-old who also enjoyed a surprising run to the final.

Osaka dropped just one set in seven matches, knocking off two-time winner Maria Sharapova, No. 5 Karolina Pliskova and top-ranked Simona Halep against whom she won the last nine games of the match.

She arrived at Indian Wells unseeded because of her No. 44 ranking. She left ranked No. 22 and with a $1.3 million check, nearly double her career earnings.

“I really wanted to win this, but also I just tried to think it was a first-round match and just not psych myself out too much,” Osaka said.

She had made it past the quarterfinals at a WTA event just once before, losing in the final at Tokyo 18 months ago. Now, she’s 15-4 this year.

“I feel like I have made it my goal to be more focused every match this year, so I think it’s paid off,” she said.

Born in Osaka, Japan, to a Haitian father and Japanese mother, she moved to the U.S. as a 3-year-old. She holds dual citizenship, living for a time in New York and now in South Florida while representing Japan in Fed Cup.

“I play now for myself,” she said, “but when I was little, I just played because I wanted to make my mom happy, mainly my mom, and also my dad, for him to be proud.”

Her parents and sister Mari, a tennis player, too, weren’t on hand in California.

Osaka and Kasatkina shared a private jet – their first such ride – to South Florida, where they will play in the Miami Open this week. Osaka faces a first-round match against Serena Williams, her idol growing up.

“I feel like I just started winning,” Osaka said. “It’s a new feeling for me to be this consistent, so I’m just trying to be happy about that.”


Del Potro edges Federer in 3 sets to win Indian Wells title

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) Juan Martin del Potro keeps surprising himself.

Close to quitting tennis after four wrist surgeries in recent years, the Argentine fought to get back to the ATP Tour even as he was reduced to hitting his backhand with one hand instead of his usual two.

The struggle paid off Sunday, when Del Potro staved off three match points in the third set to beat top-ranked Roger Federer 6-4,7-6 (8), 7-6 (2) for the BNP Paribas Open title.

The win ranks up there with Del Potro’s 2009 U.S. Open title, in which he beat Federer, and helping Argentina win the Davis Cup in 2016.

“I cannot believe I won this tournament, beating Roger in a great final and level of tennis,” Del Potro said.

Naomi Osaka of Japan won the women’s title 6-3, 6-2 over Russian Daria Kasatkina in a match-up of 20-year-old rising stars.

Del Potro and Osaka each earned $1.3 million.

Del Potro became the first Argentine champion in the 42-year history of the desert tournament. He handed Federer his first loss of the year, snapping the Swiss superstar’s 17-match winning streak that was the best of his career.

“I feel frustrated that I let an opportunity like this go by,” Federer said.

Del Potro held a match point at 8-7 in the second-set tiebreaker, but he lost the final three points on his own errors that allowed Federer to force a third set.

“It was a lot of frustration after that match point, but then I play well,” Del Potro said.

They were on serve in the third until Federer broke for a 5-4 lead with a backhand winner off del Potro’s serve.

Federer had a chance to serve out the match, holding two match points. But del Potro staved both off to force deuce.

Federer’s forehand went long, giving del Potro a break point. Federer answered with a backhand that hit del Potro at the net and then gained his third match point on del Potro’s forehand error.

Del Potro recovered to deuce with a forehand winner. Federer mis-hit a forehand high into the air beyond the baseline, giving del Potro another break point. The Argentine cashed in with a well-placed forehand in the corner to tie the set, 5-all.

In the tiebreaker, Del Potro raced to a 6-1 lead, helped by two of Federer’s double faults. He closed out the win on his third match point when Federer’s forehand failed.

“I would like to play that tiebreaker again because I don’t know what the hell happened,” Federer said.

Del Potro lost just six points on his serve in the first set.

In the second-set tiebreaker, Del Potro and Federer took turns arguing with chair umpire Fergus Murphy. Del Potro was annoyed the crowd was making noise on his serve and told the umpire he wasn’t warning them enough to be quiet.

“It had no effect on the outcome of the match,” Federer said. “I was just also just trying to pump myself up more, to get energy for me.”

Del Potro survived three-setters against countryman Leonardo Mayer in the fourth round and Philipp Kohlschreiber in the quarterfinals. It was his first win against Federer since last year’s U.S. Open quarters. Del Potro trails in their series 18-7, but owns a 4-2 advantage in finals.

Del Potro arrived at Indian Wells having won a title in Acapulco and back in the top 10.

“I’m really enjoying playing tennis again,” he said. “I’m still surprising myself, and I want to keep surprising the tennis tour.”

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