Kiki Bertens does not like attention but it will be hard for her to avoid it when she descends on Paris later this month as one of the favourites for the Roland-Garros crown.
Kiki Bertens under the spotlight before Roland-Garros
By winning her biggest title in Madrid against Halep, Kiki Bertens logically became favourite for Roland-Garros.
A semi-finalist at the Parisian Grand Slam in 2016, Bertens is no doubt brimming with confidence after capturing her biggest title to date in Madrid on Saturday, further cementing her status as a force to be reckoned with on clay.
Bertens’ 6-4, 6-4 triumph over reigning Roland-Garros champion Simona Halep in the Madrid final saw her become the first woman to ever win the Spanish title without dropping a set.
Her reward is a career-high ranking of number four, making her the highest-ranked Dutchwoman in tennis history.
“On the clay, I really feel like I can play my own game,” Bertens told reporters in Madrid after her historic victory.
“Even when I don't play well I'm still not panicking too much which, on other surfaces, it happens a little bit too much,” she added with a smile. “But on clay I feel the confidence, I feel the balance in my game, so it's easier to return for me as well because I can go a little more back. So I feel like almost in every game I have some opportunities, so it gives me a good balance I would say.”
Soft-spoken and often shy, the 27-year-old Bertens enjoyed the best season of her career in 2018, rising from 31 in the world at the start of it, to a year-end number nine.
Title runs in Charleston, Cincinnati and Seoul, along with a quarter-final appearance at Wimbledon, and a semi-final showing at the WTA Finals in Singapore earned Bertens the tour’s Most Improved Player award. But more importantly, her exploits on hard courts and grass last year gave her the belief that she can perform on any surface, not just on clay, which had always been her bread and butter.
After struggling with motivation in 2017, which ended with her seriously contemplating walking away from tennis, Bertens recaptured her passion for the sport last season, finding joy in the journey, rather just chasing the destination. She posted the most top-10 victories on tour in 2018, taking down 12 opponents from that elite ranking bracket.
A clever athlete with lots of variety, Bertens improved on many aspects of her game, most notably her fitness and her serve. She currently leads the WTA in aces this year, striking 219 in 33 matches played so far, and has the highest first-serve winning percentage on tour (72.7%) among all players who contested more than 20 matches.
“First two words that would come into mind for me are ‘fighter’ and ‘versatile’,” her Dutch coach Raemon Sluiter, a former top-50 ATP player, told reporters in Singapore last October when asked to describe Bertens.
“I think she's versatile. I think she's able to read a match. She can mix it up. She has a good, heavy forehand with a lot of topspin where she can make things difficult. But she can also play the slice, can play the dropshots, she serves pretty big. So I would call her a pretty all-around player.”
It’s a rather apt assessment of the fast-improving Bertens, who already picked up two trophies this season, in St. Petersburg and Madrid. Her 24 match wins in 2019 place her third on the WTA leaderboard behind Kvitova and Belinda Bencic.
No woman has won more clay-court matches since the start of 2016 than Bertens (she has claimed 68) and she knows she’ll be one to watch at Roland-Garros this month.
“Yeah, of course, you always go for that, but it's still a long way to go,” she said when asked in Madrid if her mind has already shifted to the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen in Paris.
“But, yeah, of course, after this week, I feel great. I know I can beat a lot of girls. I can compete with the best of the world on clay, so I'm really happy with that and, of course, we will see in a few weeks who is going to win Roland-Garros.”
On court, Bertens has managed to acquire the champion’s mentality, and she is now 9-2 win-loss in career finals. But she laughs when she is asked if she likes the attention that has come with her success.
“To be honest, not really, no,” she coyly replied.
Sluiter put it simply following her triumph in Cincinnati last year: “If she can choose if she plays on Centre Court or Court 19, it’s going to be Court 19. That won’t change, but she takes it as it comes.”
Bertens is certainly taking advantage of her opportunities and since she feels more and more comfortable on other surfaces now, the pressure to maximise her efforts on clay is no longer there, which means she is playing with more freedom on the red dirt this year.
“Big serves, clutch volleys, agile movement... the new Kiki Bertens,” tweeted 18-time Grand Slam champion Chris Evert, who put together a clay-court winning record of 94.55% during her career.
“A big congratulations to both Kiki Bertens and Simona Halep. What a match! Both will be tough to beat at Roland-Garros,” she added.
A fair prediction from the ‘Queen of Clay’ herself!