Kiki warming up to spotlight

 - Reem Abulleil

No.4 seed Bertens slowly adapting to new status as Grand Slam title contender.

Kiki Bertens round one Roland Garros 2019 Parmentier©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Kiki Bertens walked onto Court Suzanne-Lenglen for her Roland-Garros opener looking like a boss.

The world No.4 and tournament title contender had her game face on, and started her match against home favourite Pauline Parmentier – who entered the match with a 3-0 clean record against Bertens – with great conviction.

Bertens swiftly went up 3-0 in the first set, got the break she needed at 3-all in the second, and wrapped up the victory inside 90 minutes, dropping just three points on her first serve, and winning 12 of the 13 points she played at the net.

There were no signs of the first-round jitters we often see from top players at the slams, and even though that might not be the case on the inside, from the outside, Bertens looked comfortable on Roland-Garros’ second-biggest stadium as she marched into round two in Paris.

Bertens doing well on clay is nothing new. The 27-year-old has been one of the best players on the surface for several years. She reached the semi-finals at Roland-Garros in 2016, and is, unsurprisingly, the tour-leader in match-wins on clay this season, with her success over Parmentier taking her tally to 13.

Growing stature

What’s different for the Dutchwoman now, though, is that she is at a career-high No.4 ranking, has posted big wins on other surfaces, and can no longer hide from the spotlight she admittedly doesn’t enjoy. Bertens is one of the top favourites for Roland-Garros but would rather play on Court 12 than Philippe-Chatrier.

It’s something she is slowly trying to change though, and is already making some headway in.

“It's not that I feel really comfortable on the court, but I'm getting there, yeah,” Bertens told reporters in Paris on Monday after her opening-round victory.

“I have played a lot now in front of a big crowd, on the big stage. I'm getting used to it. But I still prefer one of the outside courts, but I think that's not gonna happen now, no.”

Yes, that’s highly unlikely.

The highest-ranked Dutchwoman in history, Bertens has been going through quite a rapid transformation over the past 18 months. Her quarter-final run at Wimbledon last year allowed her to believe she could perform well on non-clay surfaces, and soon after, she lifted the trophy at the Premier 5 hard-court event in Cincinnati. She ended her year by making the semis at the WTA Finals in Singapore and won her biggest title to date in Madrid earlier this month.

Kiki Bertens practice Raemon Sluiter©Julien Crosnier / FFT

In the process, she’s taken down a slew of top-10 scalps, has had to do more work with the media, and has been subjected to new kinds of pressure as a high seed and one to beat.

“The way she adapts to these changes for me is very nice to see. So that’s probably the biggest part standing out,” her Dutch coach Raemon Sluiter told

“She’s getting to the same level as she was last year between Wimbledon and Seoul but with the added pressure, with people looking more at her, the way she’s dealt with that the first five months of the year has been impressive to see.”

Title favouritism

With a strong 5-1 record against top-10 opposition this season, Bertens has established somewhat of an aura around her among the game’s elite – last year she won the most top-10 matches on tour – and will no doubt be the favourite in her second-round clash with Viktoria Kuzmova on Wednesday.

She is well aware of the fact that she’s one of the top title picks in Paris.

“It's not really something that I'm enjoying, but, no, I know it's going to be a really, really tough way for the title here,” she says of her new status. “It's just I take it match by match. And then we see whatever happen here.

"I know that I can do it, but I also know that I can lose in the next round. It's just like we see. I try my best, and then we see what's happening.”

Sluiter has formed a solid partnership with Bertens and his role informally often stretches to being a psychologist. He tries to keep her in a positive mind frame and pushes her to keep the right attitude on the court, even in defeat.

While expectations of Bertens have certainly gone up, the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable for her on the court is not necessarily related to wins and losses.

“Kiki of course, like every professional, is very result-orientated, and that’s at the end of the day what people write about. But we’re trying to keep the focus on the way she works, and the way she behaves and the way she shows herself on the court,” explains Sluiter.

“In Rome semi-finals [which she lost against Johanna Konta], it wasn’t that great.

“Of course she’s going to be tired, she was very tired, and then you play Johanna, who is playing well, but then if attitude is not great, it’s not okay because you won a lot of matches. And that’s something we have to keep working on, trust the process – it’s one of those terrible coach sayings but if a lot of people say it, it’s probably true.”

If her first round is anything to go by, Bertens appears to be trusting the process just fine. Keep an eye on her this fortnight!