Kevin Anderson waited until after turning 30 years old to make two major finals and change the way he and his career will be remembered. Kiki Bertens didn’t write a story with that same level of drama. The WTA pro from The Netherlands is only 26. What you are seeing from her is not a late-autumn period of renewal.
Yet, this isn’t an early-spring tale, either.
Bertens turned 26 without a single non-clay tour-level final to her name. She was, by any reasonable measurement, a clay-court specialist, with five finals. Beyond the surface-specific limitations which had defined her career entering 2018, Bertens had also not made a final at any level higher than the WTA International Level. When she DID break through that barrier, she did so in Charleston, a Premier tournament which is held the week after Miami at a time when a lot of tour players rest in advance of the European clay swing… and some of the quality players who remain (such as Indian Wells champion Naomi Osaka) are toasted after the heavy lifting they do on American hardcourts in March.
It was only in May, in Madrid, that Bertens reached a final of great consequence, coming within an eyelash of a first Premier Mandatory championship before Petra Kvitova took it away from her in a quality match. On that night in Spain, the mild conditions helped Kvitova, whose staying power is often related to how comfortable the weather is. The story was very different in this past weekend’s Cincinnati semifinals, but the point to underscore is that no one thought during clay season that Bertens was about to become a strong all-surface player. She needed to work hard — and as I wrote here, overcome a big disappointment — to get to this point. She had to absorb the sting of losing early at Roland Garros in a year when her level of form had never been better.
When Bertens went to Wimbledon and carried the baggage of her setback from Paris, her name was not on the radar screen for anyone interested in “players likely to make a second-half charge in the tennis season.” Bertens had lost in the first round in most of her Wimbledon and U.S. Open appearances. She had lost in the first round at those two majors in her last three main-draw appearances, four of the last six, and seven of the last nine.
Beyond the majors, consider this statistic about Bertens: Entering 2018, she had never gone beyond the third round at ANY non-clay tournament of significance — not the three majors other than Roland Garros; not the three Premier Mandatory events other than Madrid (Indian Wells, Miami, Beijing); non the four Premier 5 events other than Rome (Doha/Dubai; Canada; Cincinnati; Wuhan). The consistent barrenness of Bertens’ resume at non-clay tournaments was so striking and pervasive that Bertens could have easily conceded her place in the sport.
Bertens, like the Beach Boys in 1966, could have played a song titled, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” She could have done what 31-year-old Fabio Fognini or 24-year-old Dominic Thiem did in the summer: play the clay events right after Wimbledon and feast on rankings points from smaller tournaments on her preferred surface, thinking that bigger-point hardcourt events just weren’t suited for her. She could have gone down that road.
She could have told herself that her story in tennis had already been written, and that nothing was going to fundamentally change it. Improving on clay, maximizing opportunities on that surface, could have become her sole focus. She wouldn’t have been the first player to go down that road, and as Thiem (a younger person) is showing, she wouldn’t have been the last.
Instead, Kiki Bertens crumpled up the piece of paper in the typewriter, threw that paper in the recycling bin, got a new piece of paper, and started typing a new story.
She won a match against five-time champion Venus Williams at Wimbledon, fighting through constant scoreboard pressure to outlast a legend of the sport. That was a match Bertens would have lost in any previous year of her career, but this time, she did not. That result awakened in Bertens a fresh sense that she could achieve richly on a surface other than clay. She moved to her first Wimbledon quarterfinal and came within a set of the semis before a good friend on tour, Julia Goerges, edged her and reached the semifinals.
Bertens could appreciate what Goerges went through. The German had never made a major semifinal until Wimbledon, and Goerges waited until age 29 to finally knock that door down. Bertens had grown at Wimbledon, and part of that growth included the ability to see life and tennis through the prism of a friend’s achievement. Bertens could see how much harder it was — how much longer it took — for Goerges to reach new heights.
Bertens didn’t chase clay points the way Fognini and others did in late July. Like a player who believed she could be great in important tournaments, she rested three full weeks before Montreal. She made the quarterfinals there, her first quarterfinal at a hardcourt Premier 5 or higher tournament. She could have been satisfied with that and let down her guard in Cincinnati. No one would have held it against her, either.
Once again, instead of doing the easy thing or settling into a comfortable posture, Bertens pushed herself.
Her tennis was legitimately strong in Cincinnati. Her increased weight of shot early in the second set in Sunday’s final against Simona Halep turned around a match the World No. 1 had dominated in set one. Halep could not have played any better than she did in the first set, and in the face of the Romanian’s onslaught, Bertens could have yet again accepted the circumstances which seemed to be enveloping her.
The new Kiki Bertens, one more time, defied the past and its patterns. She hit a lot harder and sent a loud message to the other side of the net. Bertens’ aggressive plan didn’t always work, but it was enough to carry her into a tiebreaker. It was enough to save match point on her own serve at 5-6 in that tiebreaker. It was enough to elicit nervous errors from Halep in the final two points of that breaker. It was enough to gain control early in the third and set own the run of play while Halep’s previously solid forehand finally broke down.
Bertens has married power and purpose, precision and persistence, in the American Midwest. Her championship in Ohio was built on equal portions of shotmaking quality and sturdiness. She was the fitter play on court in sun-drenched matches against Kvitova (in conditions very different from Madrid) and Halep (worn out after two full weeks of tennis) in the semifinals and finals this past weekend. Bertens held her nerve in big moments and showed the agility to change her plan when necessary. She checked every box a tennis player can check — physical fitness, mental composure, tactical agility, and forceful strokes.
No one expected this story to be written, but this is the story we have as we leave Cincinnati. Kiki Bertens, who once had feet of clay on any surface other than clay, has now put deep roots into Wimbledon lawns and cemented herself as a presence on hardcourts, one which could make a big run at the U.S. Open.
This is a Dutch treat for a whole nation, but it is most centrally satisfying for an athlete who could have resigned herself to a modest and quiet status in tennis but found a way to push for more. That is a lesson players of every age can learn from. It is a lesson which produced the Cincinnati WTA champion for 2018.