US Open champ Cilic joins UAE Royals

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On board: Marin Cilic.

Current US Open champion and World no. 9 Marin Cilic will represent the UAE Royals, the Dubai based IPTL franchise, in the inaugural edition of the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL).

The Croatian ace replaces Richard Gasquet in the Royals' line-up.

Cilic will travel to the IPTL’s matches in the Philippines, Singapore and India before finally playing in front of a packed stadium at Dubai’s Hamdan Sports Complex from December 11 to 13.

Joining Cilic in the UAE Royals team are World no. 1 Novak Djokovic, Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, former World no. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, the legendary Goran Ivanisevic, doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic and Arab no.1 Malek Jaziri.

Commenting on his entry into the UAE Royals squad, Cilic said: “The International Premier Tennis League presents an exciting platform for tennis players to enjoy the sport in a brand new way and I am thrilled to be part of the inaugural edition.

“The UAE Royals are a power-packed squad and I look forward to playing for the team in front of fans in Dubai and other cities.”

Sawan Ravani, co-owner of UAE Royals, added: “We are honoured and thrilled to have Marin Cilic, who is currently storming the Kremlin Cup in Russia, join the UAE Royals team.

“Cilic will add his own brilliance to a team that already boasts legends such as World No 1 Novak Djokovic and Goran Ivanisevic among its male players. Ivanisevic, incidentally, discovered and mentored Cilic, so their relationship brings a special chemistry into our team.”

At a career-high No. 9, Cilic captured his first Grand Slam title at the US Open this year, also becoming the first Croatian to claim a major crown since Ivanisevic at the 2001 Wimbledon. 

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Serena intent on maintaining WTA top spot

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Back from injury: Serena Williams returns after a knee injury.

Serena Williams has only been back hitting on court for a week having been dealing with a knee injury but the American seems determined to go the distance at the WTA Finals, particularly with the year-end No1 ranking on the line.

The top seed, who kicks off her title defence in Singapore on Monday against Ana Ivanovic, sustained a knee injury that forced her to withdraw ahead of her quarter-final in Beijing two weeks ago and confessed that she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to participate in the WTA Finals this week.

Williams had flown to Paris, where she met with her doctors, and could only resume practice last Monday but says she’s been surprised at how well she’s been feeling on court and that she’s ready to compete for a fifth WTA Finals title, which would be her fourth consecutive one (she didn’t participate in 2010 and 2011).

Williams, who has ended the year as the top player in the world on three previous occasions  – in 2002, 2009 and 2013 – will have to fend off an assault from Maria Sharapova who trails the 33-year-old by a mere 466 points in the rankings, with 1500 up for grabs this week.

The 18-time major champion can secure the top spot if she reaches the final with a 3-0 record in the round robin matches or if she makes the final with a 2-1 record, provided Sharapova drops a group stage match.

Asked how important it was for her to end the year as No1, Williams said yesterday: “It's obviously super important for me. I love being No1, I love being the best.

“But at the same time, I'm really glad that I was able to get a slam this year, which was really annoying for me that I wasn't able to capture one.

“That was something that was super, super, super important, especially for the goals that I was trying to reach.

“I think (the battle for No1) definitely adds an extra element of excitement. At the end of the day, I don't let that stress me out. I'm just happy to be here. I really didn't think I was going to be able to come (due to the knee injury).

“With that, I don't feel a great amount of pressure. I'm just really excited to have made it to the WTA's biggest event at the end of the year.”

Williams is on a remarkable 15-match winning streak in the year-end championships having captured the title in 2009, 2012 and 2013 – missing the event the years in between. Only Martina Navratilova has had a longer winning run in the event, triumphing in 21 consecutive matches between 1983 and 1987.

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Puig hoping to make her mark at WTA Finals Rising Stars event

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Aiming high: Monica Puig.

Monica Puig may be aware that she is competing in an invitational exhibition event in Singapore this week, but the fiery Puerto Rican has been playing like her life depended on it.

One of four youngsters featuring in the newly-introduced Rising Stars event that is being staged on the sidelines of the WTA Finals in Singapore, Puig has posted two solid victories in her opening two round robin matches so far, beating Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas on day one, and China’s Zheng Saisai yesterday to close in on a spot in Tuesday’s final.

The 21-year-old had a breakthrough year last season, reaching the third round at Roland Garros on her grand slam debut, and following it up with a fourth round appearance at Wimbledon where she ousted the fifth-seeded Sara Errani in the first round.

She peaked at No41 in the world mid-last year and was considered one of the ones to watch heading into 2014.

But Puig’s 2014 season did not go as planned as she failed to replicate her success in the majors and has dropped to No63 in the rankings.

Despite capturing her first WTA title in Strasbourg in May, the Florida-based player was unable to put together any consistent results.

But she seems to find her footing in Singapore, where she was voted by thousands of fans to take part in the Rising Stars event.

“It’s just an unbelievable thing to end the year being here and being able to play in one of the greatest stages in the world so I’m so excited,” said Puig, who was pumping herself up throughout her win over Zheng, which took place on one of the practice courts at the Singapore Sports Hub.

“The final is going to be played on the main stadium so that’s really a huge reward and that’s really what I wanted. I practiced with Simona (Halep) the other day in the main stadium and I was like ‘I really want to be here’ so I really have to work hard and earn my spot.”

Puig admits she’s had a tough year and says some unfortunate draws made things difficult for her at the majors.

“It really hurts when you lose first round knowing that you had to defend so many points,” said Puig.

“It hurts to know that I was 41 (in the world) at one point and now I’m hanging in the balance in the 60s. But you know it’s a process. I just turned 21. I have a lot of tennis ahead of me.

“Right now if I lose but I’m learning that means that I’m going to win in the future. I’d rather lose and learn than win and not know anything and just be out there and see what happens. I would really like to enjoy the process, learn what I have to learn and then be a very consistent player in the future.”

Changing coaches twice in the first six months of the season also didn’t help, but she seems in sync with her current teacher, Ricardo Sanchez, who has previously worked with Nadia Petrova and Jelena Jankovic.

“I changed coaches twice this year. I was with my coach (Alain de Vos) that I was with for six years until the end of the Australian Open and then I was with another coach (Antonio van Grichen) until Estoril and then I started with Richy (Ricardo Sanchez),” she says.

“It was really tough transition, I was hearing  a lot of different voices.

“Now I’m really comfortable, now I have stability in my life. He’s really positive.

“The second week that I’m working with him I win my first WTA title, so I was really excited. It was a different outlook, he made me feel really relaxed on the court, like I can believe in myself.”

There are a host of players who are Puig’s age who have had bigger breakthroughs, most notably Eugenie Bouchard, who at 20, is already a grand slam runner-up.

With the competition amongst the youngsters reaching incredible heights, is women’s tennis as cutthroat as it seems? “Absolutely not,” says Puig. “Tennis is a competitive sport and you have to look at it that way.

“I mean, Genie (Bouchard), you see how well she’s been doing this year. For some people it clicks earlier than others. I have to accept that I’m a bit of a late bloomer, it happened in the juniors as well. So right now I’m just learning and I’m looking forward to what I’m going to do in the offseason and really get ready to boom in 2015.”

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