SINGAPORE: Angelique Kerber was given a harsh reminder of the pressure she faces as the new world number one when she was pushed to three sets before winning her opening match at the WTA Finals against Dominika Cibulkova on Sunday (Oct 23).
The German was pushed all the way by an inspired Cibulkova before the Slovakian finally cracked and Kerber prevailed 7-6 (7-5) 2-6 6-3.
Although it was not her most convincing display, Kerber's hard-fought victory underlined her determination to cap her incredible season by adding the prestigious end-of-season championship to her Australian Open and US Open titles.
"Of course the pressure is there," Kerber said. "I feel the pressure of the different situation and I also have a lot more things to do in the last few days.
"It's a challenge for me and I'm trying to play the best tennis in the last tournament in the last week of the year. I'm a little bit relaxed now. It was a really good, tough match so I think that was really important for me to have a match like that."
Simona Halep, who looms as one of Kerber's biggest threats, also laid down an ominous marker as she demolished rising American Madison Keys 6-2 6-4 in the first match of the US$7 million tournament.
A finalist two years ago, the Romanian looked in great touch on her return to Singapore's purple indoor hardcourt, needing just over an hour to win her round-robin contest with Keys.
The big-hitting Keys struggled to find her rhythm against Halep, who is one of the most tenacious counterpunchers in the game, committing 18 unforced errors and losing 13 points in a row to concede the opening set after just 27 minutes.
The American admitted to feeling some anxiety in her first appearance in the elite eight-player event as she struggled to find her rhythm against Halep, one of the most tenacious counterpunchers in the game.
"There were definitely some nerves today, which I don't think is surprising," said Keys, who was appearing in the elite eight-player event for the first time. "It's been a while since I've gone to a tournament where it's all felt new ... so that was kind of difficult to deal with."
Despite being in control, Halep also had a brief moment of self-doubt in the second set, calling for her coach Darren Cahill, who told her just to relax and stick to her gameplan.
"I panicked a little bit because I missed some easy shots," Halep said. "He knows how to talk to me when I need. He just calms me down and it's perfect."
There was no obvious sign of the intense fight that was to come when Kerber clinically broke Cibulkova in the opening game of their match and comfortably held her own serve.
But the seventh-seed Cibulkova clawed her way back, forcing a tiebreaker than dominating the second set, rattling Kerber with her penetrating groundstrokes into the corners.
Cibulkova seemed to have gained the ascendancy when she broke Kerber's serve early in the deciding third set but the world number one dug deep and reeled off five of the last six games to clinch victory and remain on course for next weekend's semi-finals with the top two players from each group advancing.
"It is a really, really tough one. It was really close," a disappointed Cibulkova said. "In this game, it's all about small details. She was just bit more consistent in few games, and that's what made her win."
The four players in the White Group, the defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska, US Open runner-up Karolina Pliskova, French Open champion Garbine Muguruza and last-minute qualifier Svetlana Kutznetsova, all play their opening matches on Monday.