November 1, 2015

Against All Odds

Now I know I've talked about how wide open the draw was in Singapore, but I'm not sure anyone expected things to go the way they did. From the opening blows, to stellar debuts, to surprising upsets we saw a little bit of everything at the WTA Finals this year. And at the end of it all not only was it one of the most unlikely candidates left standing, but she had nabbed by far the biggest win of her already successful career.

And the road wasn't easy for Aga Radwanska -- the former world #2 had for some time this year fallen well out of contention for the postseason, dropping out of the top ten this summer for the first time in years. But she rallied strong in the fall, picking up titles in Tokyo and Tianjin and came to the year-end championships with a little more momentum than most. But she struggled early, losing a marathon to a surprisingly strong Maria Sharapova, who'd scored her first match win since Wimbledon in their opener, and then getting bested again by U.S. Open champ Flavia Pennetta to build a 0-2 deficit. But a win over top seed Simona Halep on Wednesday kept her hopes alive and Sharapova's staying perfect in the round robins got the two of them tickets into the semifinals.

Things came down to the wire in the other draw group as well, and were turned a little on their heads there too. While Garbiñe Muguruza, fresh off a title in Beijing, seemed to sail through her postseason debut -- she dominated her round robin matches, only dropping one set late in the week, and secured her spot in the semis with little drams -- the fate of everyone else remained up in the air until the end. And Petra Kvitova, who won this title during her groundbreaking 2011 season, was kept on the edge of her seat -- after losing her first match to Angelique Kerber, she was constantly playing catch up, only securing her spot in the final four after Singapore newbie Lucie Safarova shocked Kerber for her only win of the event, and sealing an entry for her compatriot.

The biggest surprises, though, came in Saturday's semifinals which pitted the two players who'd rocketed through their early rounds against a couple ladies who barely made it out of their group matches. But Radwanska brought her late burst of momentum with her -- against Muguruza, a woman who'd won every one of their meetings this year, including one just weeks ago in Beijing, the Pole was finally able to turn the tables, coming back after dropping a tight first set and powering through for the three-set win. And Kvitova, who'd largely struggled against Sharapova since that unexpected victory at Wimbledon years ago, had an even easier time, finally ending the long-ago champion's impressive run in Singapore. With both of the favorites getting a little spooked in their Halloween matches, we were treated to a final no one could have predicted.

Aga was the underdog there too -- with a disappointing 2-6 record against the two-time Major winner, and only one win over a top ten player this year before coming to Singapore, her chances were pretty slim. But the world #6 built herself an early lead, taking the first set and grabbing an early break in the second. Kvitova fought back and even got ahead in the decider, but Radwanska stayed strong, committing just five errors throughout the match and breaking her opponent an astonishing seven times. And after another two hours on court, the lady who hadn't claimed her spot at the WTA finals until just a week before it began, was triumphantly -- and frankly, by the skin of her teeth -- the one walking away with the trophy.

It's quite an ending for a woman who for so much of the season looked like her best days were behind her. And even if she started off slow this week, by finishing with some of the biggest wins of her career, she's certainly reasserted herself as a real force in the sport for when the new year starts. And while the threats will surely be bigger in the months ahead, perhaps the opportunities will be too -- and after she battled her way through this draw, there's not much else I expect she can't handle.

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