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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.”

Nadal-Djokovic semifinal suspended after 3rd set

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LONDON (AP) It was the kind of tennis that Wimbledon’s Centre Court crowd would gladly have watched all night long.

The show being put on by Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal was so good it could have been an instant classic had they been able to finish their semifinal before the tournament’s 11 p.m. curfew.

Instead, the two players – and a disappointed audience – were sent home after the third set on Friday with Djokovic leading 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9) following a tense tiebreaker that had more entertaining rallies than some entire matches.

The two players didn’t even get onto the court until after 8 p.m. because of an earlier marathon semifinal won by Kevin Anderson and when Djokovic converted his second set point in the tiebreaker – having saved three of Nadal’s – the clock had ticked a couple of minutes past 11. That left organizers no choice but to call it a night, although the announcement from the chair umpire led to a scattering of boos from some fans who clearly wanted more.

Most of them will have to watch the rest on TV.

The match will resume at 1 p.m. local time on Saturday, before the women’s final between Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber. At stake is a place in Sunday’s men’s final against the man who was partly at fault for keeping Nadal and Djokovic out there so late. Anderson’s win over John Isner lasted 6 + hours and went to 26-24 in the fifth set.

Djokovic-Nadal had clearly been the headline act of the day – they have five Wimbledon titles between them and met in the 2011 final while Anderson and Isner had never made the semifinals before – and their tennis was at another level from the earlier match. Even Anderson said he could feel during his match that the crowd would rather be watching the next one.

“They’ve paid to see two matches, and they came pretty close to only seeing one match,” Anderson said. “I can feel the crowd (get) pretty antsy for us to get off the court. They’ve been watching us for over six hours.”

While Anderson-Isner was mostly a serving duel with a few longer rallies thrown in, Djokovic and Nadal repeatedly slugged it out from the baseline, chasing each other around the court and coming up with spectacular winners from every corner.

Many of the best points came in the tiebreaker, including a 23-shot rally that Nadal finished off with a forehand half-volley drop shot to set up his first set point.

It was one of three successful drop shots from the Spaniard in the tiebreaker alone, but Djokovic answered with one of his own to save the second set point at 7-6.

He eventually went up 10-9 with the help of a backhand passing shot and an errant shot into the net by Nadal brought the entertainment to an end – for now.

It led to the unusual situation of both players leaving the court to a huge ovation – and applauding the fans in return – but without there being a clear winner or loser.

To be continued.

Former No. 1 Kerber tops Ostapenko; into second Wimbledon final

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LONDON – It was clear right from the opening game of Angelique Kerber’s Wimbledon semifinal how things were going to go. She was not going to dictate or control much.

She was, instead, going to employ spectacular defense and solid, steady play, while letting her opponent, Jelena Ostapenko, be the one to determine the outcomes of nearly every point.

It worked. The 11th-seeded Kerber reached her second final at the All England Club by avoiding too many mistakes and using a seven-game run to seize control for a 6-3, 6-3 victory over the 12th-seeded Ostapenko on Thursday.

“These are the matches I was working for as a young kid,” Kerber said, “and to stand here again in the final at Wimbledon is great.”

Kerber is a former No. 1 and a two-time major champion, both coming in 2016 at the Australian Open and U.S. Open. That was also the year the German was the runner-up at Wimbledon, losing to Serena Williams in the title match.

She could find herself up against Williams yet again: The 36-year-old American was scheduled to face No. 13 Julia Goerges of Germany in Thursday’s second semifinal on Centre Court.

Williams took a 19-match Wimbledon winning streak into the day. She won the grass-court tournament the last two times she played it, in 2015 and 2016, before missing it last year while pregnant. Williams gave birth to a daughter in September.

The left-handed Kerber was mainly a passive participant in the early going against Ostapenko. That first game consisted of eight points: Three were unforced errors by Ostapenko, including a double-fault to begin the proceedings; the other five were winners by her, including a 100 mph ace to close the hold.

Five games in, Ostapenko led 3-2, and the numbers were still tilted toward her. She had 14 winners and 10 unforced errors, while Kerber had three winners and – this was key – zero unforced errors.

There were no drawn-out points in the early going, no lengthy baseline exchanges, essentially because Ostapenko wouldn’t allow it. The Latvian plays an aggressive brand of first-strike tennis that carried her to the 2017 French Open title as an unseeded 20-year-old.

Kerber, in contrast, bides her time, working the back of the court to get everything back over the net, often kneeling to get low enough to reach shots.

Eventually, Kerber’s style ruled the day. She went on a half-hour run in which she took the last four games of the first set and took a 3-0 lead in the second. Ostapenko’s strokes were missing and she grew increasingly frustrated, slapping a thigh after a miss or leaning forward and putting her hands on her knees after others. By the time she flubbed a backhand while falling behind 5-1 in the second, she dropped her racket and screamed.

It took Kerber two tries to serve out the victory, getting broken to 5-2. But unlike in the quarterfinals, when she needed seven match points to win, this time it required only two, with the match ending – fittingly enough – on a forehand by Ostapenko that sailed wide.

The final tally told the story: Ostapenko had far more winners, 30-10, but also far more unforced errors, 36-7.