Kiki Bertens: Free of expectations

 - Danielle Rossingh

With few matches under her belt and less pressure on her shoulders, Bertens comes to Paris flying under the radar

Kiki Bertens, Roland Garros 2019© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Last year, Kiki Bertens came to Roland-Garros as one of the title favourites with a shot at the top spot in women’s tennis.

But Bertens’ bid for sporting glory was derailed by an upset stomach, which forced her to retire from her second-round match in tears.

This year, the Dutch No.5 seed has come to her most successful Grand Slam event with very few expectations and even less pressure. And that is just the way she likes it.

Having skipped the US Open last month, Bertens’ preparation for Roland-Garros was brief. She marked her comeback to the women’s tour after seven months away because of the pandemic with a loss in Rome, followed by retirement with an Achilles heel injury in the final set against former Roland-Garros winner Jelena Ostapenko in Strasbourg last week. 

“I don't feel any pressure this year, not yet, maybe I will,” Bertens told “But I've just played so little, so I'm just going to try to play well, and hopefully I can get into it match by match. I'm just going to give everything here and then we'll see how far that will take me.”

Achilles heel

Her retirement in Strasbourg was a preventative measure to make sure an issue that has been bothering her for a long time wouldn’t get any worse.

"With this injury, I just know that if I get a day's rest, then I will actually get better. I did just that, and just finished my first training here. It went well, so I don't expect any problems,” said Bertens, who plays the 112th-ranked Ukrainian Katarina Zavatska in the first round on Monday.

Although Bertens is short on match practice, things are starting to come together in training with her new coach, Elise Tamaela, who took over from former Dutch pro Raemon Sluiter at the end of 2019.

Kiki Bertens, Roland Garros 2019© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

"Of course, you always hope that you have played more matches, or that you have a bit more of an idea of where you stand, what your level is, that you have a bit more self-confidence,” said Bertens, a semi-finalist on the Parisian clay in 2016.

“Of course that is not the case, but I noticed the match in Strasbourg was so much better than that match in Rome. In practice, the level is also more and more constant, so I'm starting to feel better. I'm just trying to take the feeling of that first set in Strasbourg with me and give it everything here."

Betty Stove

Bertens, 28, is the best female tennis player from the Netherlands since former Wimbledon finalist Betty Stove in the 1970s. A powerful ball-striker with a big serve, she excels on the red dirt. In recent years, Bertens has become a popular athlete back home. Still, she isn’t a fan of the limelight, often preferring to play on an outside court instead of the big arenas.

Three years ago, Bertens came close to hanging up her rackets, worn out by the constant chase for ranking points and prize money. But she decided to give it one last shot, and has never looked back. Having finished 2018 as the world No.9, she rose to No.4 last year, the highest ranking for any Dutchwoman since Stove.

‘Fighting hard’

Because of Covid-restrictions, this year’s tournament will be played with far fewer fans in the stands than normal. It means there probably won’t be many patriotic Orange-clad fans donning cow hats from the Netherlands cheering for Bertens.

"Of course it's a pity, because certainly in Paris there are always a lot of Dutch people who encourage you, and who are really rooting for you,” said Bertens. “If you're playing really well, that's always a very good feeling. On the other hand, it can also create more tension.

“But it's not really on my mind. I'm playing for myself here because I want to know where I am, whether I'm doing well...I'm just going to fight hard for myself here and then we'll see how it goes".