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Cibulkova’s winning debut faces final test in Kerber

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SINGAPORE — Top-ranked Angelique Kerber and seventh-seeded Dominika Cibulkova will compete for the WTA Finals title on Sunday.

The top-seeded Kerber picked apart defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska’s game in a textbook 6-2, 6-1 semifinal drubbing on Saturday.

This is Kerber’s fourth trip to the WTA Finals and the first time she’s advanced beyond the round-robin stage of the competition.

“It’s just amazing to be here,” Kerber said. “It’s been an incredible 12 months. I’ve been really working to being focused, to being calm and to being just positive on court and this is the biggest improvement I’ve made.”

Slovakia’s Cibulkova rolled to the ground in celebration after taking her debut at the WTA Finals all the way to the championship match with a 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 semifinal victory over Svetlana Kuznetsova.

“I’m just so excited,” said Cibulkova, after winning in 2 hours, 27 minutes. “This is my first time here, playing finals now, and playing such a great match against Sveta.

“For me, it’s one of my dreams come true.”

Kerber leads Cibulkova 5-4 in career meetings, including Kerber’s tough 7-6 (5), 2-6, 6-3 win in their round-robin meeting.

“It’s a little bit weird to play against one opponent twice in one tournament,” Kerber said. “This never happened before for me. She has nothing to lose, so I think it will be a good match and final from both of us.”

But Kerber warned that “I am playing a lot more aggressive now than in that first match.”

Kerber featured in three Grand Slam finals this year, winning her first two Grand Slam titles at the Australian and US Open.

The semifinal was lopsided as Kerber, always on the offensive, kept Radwanska from finding any inroads into her game. While Kerber did surrender her serve on both break points she faced, it had little impact as she took advantage of seven of 13 break points offered by Radwanska.

“I just couldn’t make the last shot,” Radwanska said. “All the games were going one way. Not my way, unfortunately.”

At the end of her match, Kuznetsova did not wait at the net for the traditional handshake as Cibulkova celebrated victory. Cibulkova then approached the already seated Kuznetsova, but the handshake offered by the Russian appeared lackluster.

Cibulkova, who reached the 2014 Australian Open final, played down the exchange.

“I saw her on her bench so I went there to shake hands,” Cibulkova said. “Sometimes you can get upset after the match and that’s normal. We are fine, but we are not like best friends on the tour. It wasn’t like we’re going to hug each other, but it was OK.”

Cibulkova holds a 6-3 winning record over Kuznetsova, and has now won their last six matches. She is the second consecutive player to reach the year-end final having come out of the round-robin stage with a 1-2 result.

Radwanska won the title from a 1-2 finish in the round-robin last year.

Cibulkova was named the 2016 WTA Comeback Player of the Year, having improved from a No. 38 year-end ranking in 2015 to No. 8 this week. In 2015, she missed four months of the season after undergoing Achilles surgery.

Cibulkova was almost non-existent in the first set and Kuznetsova didn’t offer a break-point opportunity.

The second set featured six service breaks, but it was Cibulkova who took the tiebreaker by repeated smart-shot placement against her opponent.

Kuznetsova looked on the way to the finals with a 4-2 lead in the dramatic third set, but Cibulkova refused to fold.

From 4-4, Cibulkova saved two break points on her serve in the ninth game, and then captured the first match point at 30-40 when Kuznetsova’s forehand clipped the net and sailed wide.

“Whatever it is, I’m not going to put any excuses,” Kuznetsova said. “I just did all I could, and I went short a little bit in the end.”

Kasatkina upsets Venus Williams to reach Indian Wells final

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (AP) Daria Kasatkina upset Venus Williams 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 in a nearly three-hour baseline struggle to reach the final of the BNP Paribas Open on Friday night.

Kasatkina was two points from defeat, trailing 4-5 and 0-30 in the third set when Williams committed four straight errors as the 20-year-old Russian tied it 5-all.

Williams won just two more points as Kasatkina took the last two games to close out the match in 2 hours, 48 minutes. Kasatkina dropped her racket near the baseline and covered her face with her hands as she walked to the net.

After shaking hands, Kasatkina pumped her fists and shook her head slightly as if in disbelief at beating the 37-year-old American and advancing to the biggest final of her young career.

Top-ranked Simona Halep took on Naomi Osaka, a 20-year-old from Japan, in the other semifinal.

After losing the first set, Kasatkina was visited by her coach on court. Philippe Dehaes told her, “She’s 37, you’re 20. Make her work a lot.”

When she wasn’t trading shots from the baseline, a nervy Kasatkina fooled Williams with drop shots, including two that landed just over the net near the sideline. The Russian tossed up lobs over the 6-foot-1 American – some worked, some didn’t, but she was undeterred.

There were 14 service breaks in the match.

Williams rallied from 3-1 down to win the first set. She trailed 3-1 again in the second and tied it 3-all when Kasatkina was broken on a double fault.

Kasatkina won the last four games in a row to take the second set. The players dueled through eight deuces in an epic eighth game, with the Russian turning back six break points against her. Williams pulled a forehand wide to lose the game.

Kasatkina’s coach visited her again before the third set.

“You go for it?” he asked her.

“Sure,” she replied, and they slapped hands.

Williams served a love game to go up 5-4. She led love-30 on Kasatkina’s serve in the next game before her forehand deserted her.

Williams double-faulted twice in a row to drop serve and trail 6-5. Kasatkina won on her second match point when Williams netted a backhand.

Kasatkina now owns a 2-1 record against Williams, who won 10-8 in the third round at Wimbledon in 2016.

Juan Martin del Potro defeated No. 31 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, and Milos Raonic beat 18th-seeded American Sam Querrey 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 to reach the men’s semifinals.

More AP tennis coverage:

Maria Sharapova withdraws from Miami with forearm injury

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. (AP) Five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova has withdrawn from the Miami Open that begins next week because of a left forearm injury.

Sharapova announced the decision on Friday. She’ll be replaced in the main draw by American Jennifer Brady.

Sharapova lost in the first round at Indian Wells last week and in the third round of the Australian Open in January. She returned to the tour last year after a 15-month doping ban.

The women’s field includes eight-time Key Biscayne champion Serena Williams and No. 1-ranked Simona Halep. The men’s field includes defending champion Roger Federer and six-time Key Biscayne champ Novak Djokovic.