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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.”

Mattek-Sands upsets Svitolina at Miami Open

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Bethanie Mattek-Sands picked up her first top-10 victory since 2015, upsetting ninth-seeded Elina Svitolina 7-5, 6-4 on Thursday to reach the Miami Open’s third round.

Mattek-Sands, who turned 32 on Thursday, is ranked only 158th in singles and needed a wild-card invitation to get into the hard-court tournament. She is ranked No. 1 in doubles.

Against Svitolina, Mattek-Sands saved 12 of the 15 break points she faced.

The woman with whom Mattek-Sands won the doubles championships at the past two Grand Slam tournaments, Lucie Safarova, eliminated 23rd-seeded Daria Gavrilova 6-2, 6-2 on Thursday. Safarova, the 2015 French Open runner-up, is ranked 36th, so was just outside the seedings at the hard-court tournament. She broke Gavrilova five times while losing serve only once herself.

In another surprise, Kirsten Flipkens beat No. 29 Ana Konjuh 7-6 (4), 6-7 (6), 6-2.

Also, second-seeded Karolina Pliskova, a finalist at last year’s U.S. Open, had no trouble beating 86th-ranked Madison Brengle 6-1, 6-3 in about an hour to get to the third round.

Other seeded winners included No. 4 Dominika Cibulkova, No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 12 Caroline Wozniacki, No. 17 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, No. 26 Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, No. 27 Yulia Putintseva and No. 30 Zhang Shuai.

In men’s action, now things will get a little more challenging for Frances Tiafoe.

Tiafoe, a 19-year-old from Maryland, set up a second-round meeting against 18-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer by beating Konstantin Kravchuk 7-5, 5-7, 6-1.

Tiafoe hit 12 aces and accumulated 14 break points, converting five, on the 32-year-old Kravchuk’s serve. This was Tiafoe’s third career match victory at a Grand Slam or Masters event. Kravchuk, meanwhile, dropped to 0-7 overall this season.

Tiafoe is ranked 101st, Kravchuk 103rd. The level of competition will rise against the fourth-seeded – and former No. 1-ranked – Federer.

In other men’s first-round action, Horacio Zeballos came back to beat Gastao Elias 6-7 (2), 6-2, 7-5 and earn a matchup against top-seeded Stan Wawrinka next. Wawrinka lost to Federer in the final at Indian Wells, California, on Sunday.

Elsewhere, Adrian Mannarino defeated qualifier Benjamin Becker 7-6 (6), 6-3 and will next face No. 32 Paolo Lorenzi, Borna Coric edged Marcel Granollers 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-3, and Tommy Robredo topped Nikoloz Basilashvili 3-6, 6-4, 6-2.

Safarova tops No. 23 Gavrilova at Miami Open; Pliskova wins

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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. (AP) Lucie Safarova eliminated 23rd-seeded Daria Gavrilova 6-2, 6-2 on Thursday to reach the third round of the Miami Open.

Safarova, the 2015 French Open runner-up, is ranked 36th, so was just outside the seedings at the hard-court tournament. She broke Gavrilova five times while losing serve only once herself.

In another early women’s match Thursday, second-seeded Karolina Pliskova, a finalist at last year’s U.S. Open, had no trouble beating 86th-ranked Madison Brengle 6-1, 6-3 in about an hour to get to the third round.

In men’s first-round action, Adrian Mannarino defeated qualifier Benjamin Becker 7-6 (6), 6-3 and will next face No. 32 Paolo Lorenzi,