By John O’Brien
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Angelique Kerber showed more passion in the media center than on the court when she crashed out of last year’s WTA Finals, the German angered by the format and frustrated by her inability to win the set off an eliminated opponent she needed to advance.
Her petulance then provided a sideshow to the eight-woman season-ending tournament but this year she returns as world number one, a double grand slam winner, Olympic silver medalist and a woman on a mission.
Prior to 2016, the 28-year-old from Bremen was a respected professional on the circuit and a regular winner on the WTA Tour yet despite her incredible athleticism and retrieving skills, Kerber’s mental fragility could be exploited by the very best.
“For me last year it was not the best tournament with the pressure with the one set that I had in my mind,” Kerber told reporters on Saturday.
“But it’s nice to be back here. I will just try to do it better than last year.
“This is my goal when I start the year. Coming back here right now as the top seed is a little bit better feeling than last year.”
This year, Kerber decided a change of attitude was needed and she vowed never let her emotions get the better of her again. That new maturity was evident when she made a solid start to the season but few could have predicted her meteoric rise.
The German had a poor record at slams and when she faced a match point in her Australian Open first round encounter against Japan’s Misaki Doi, another early exit beckoned.
She dug deep, though, and turned the match around to set the foundations for a campaign in which she defied the odds to claim the Melbourne crown and last month’s U.S. Open on a remarkable journey that has taken her top of the rankings.
The woman she usurped, 22-times grand slam winner Serena Williams, is not in Singapore for a second year running due to a shoulder injury but Kerber knows the other seven women in the field will all believe they too have a chance to win.
Her main rival is likely to be defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska, who claimed the biggest win of her career in Singapore a year ago and has the retrieving skills to match Kerber but offers a little more guile than the powerful German.
The 27-year-old Pole is one of the fittest players on the tour and her China Open victory earlier this month suggests she will be fresh and in form when the eight-day tournament kicks off at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Sunday.
French Open champion Garbine Muguruza arrives under an injury cloud but the Spaniard played well enough here last year to suggest she could challenge, while Romania’s Simona Halep made the Singapore final in 2014 so can also not be discounted.
Kerber and Halep have been drawn in the Red Group, alongside American Madison Keys and Slovak Dominika Cibulkova. Radwanska and Muguruza are in the White Group with Czech Karolina Pliskova and either Briton Johanna Konta or Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Russia’s Kuznetsova will replace Konta in the draw if she beats Australia’s Daria Gavrilova in the Kremlin Cup final in Moscow on Saturday.
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)