The Australian Open, given its place on the tennis calendar, is always immensely interesting and revealing not just because it is the first major of the year and carries a new-car smell with it. The Australian Open is the first big revelation or indicator of how an emergent player carries a new target on his or her back after finishing the previous season in an authoritative way.
We who cover women’s tennis wondered early in the 2018 season if Caroline Garcia was going to take the next step in her evolution. She very clearly did not. Her run to the semifinals of the 2017 WTA Finals as the surprise entrant into the field made her a player to watch in 2018. Yet, last year did not catapult the Frenchwoman to a greater height. Being more of a target on tour is something an improving player has to learn to deal with, knowing that every opponent will be more intent on delivering one’s best shot in each match. The act of “consolidation” is central to tennis success, whether one refers to defending points from one year to the next, or following one good tournament with a few more strong performances in the subsequent months, or merely holding serve after taking a break lead in a set.
At the start of 2019, Kiki Bertens stood in the shoes Garcia occupied a year earlier. She was the surprise participant at the 2018 WTA Finals. She, like Garcia, made a run to the semis in Singapore. She showed very tangible signs of being able to dramatically raise her floor at major tournaments, and from that raised floor, give herself a chance to raise her ceiling as well.
No, Bertens was not a top-tier contender for the championship in Melbourne, but her Wimbledon-Cincinnati-Singapore run in the second half of the 2018 WTA season made it very realistic to think that she could become a strong quarterfinal-level player at big tournaments across the tour this year. Lifting trophies and making finals is obviously great, but my expectations for Bertens in 2019 – like Garcia in 2018 – were not based on championships so much as being in the mix very regularly at important events, and that means being in the quarterfinals with a chance to do something.
When players can get to the round of eight on a consistent basis, they might not win a majority of the time. After all, one figures to play very tough opponents in the quarters of a tournament. Yet, saturating their ledger sheet with quarterfinal appearances means that they can win only one-third of the time over the course of the season and still make three or four semifinals at important tournaments, and perhaps one final. Becoming that kind of player – especially on a deep and balanced WTA Tour – would represent a level of growth worthy of a player’s talents.
This was the realistic expectation I had for Bertens heading into 2019.
After a second-round loss to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova – in which she won the first set, 6-3, and in which she had won each of her first three sets of the tournament in Melbourne by a 6-3 score – Bertens knows that she has taken a forceful punch to the gut.
It could very well be a punch she can absorb and overcome. She might thrive in Indian Wells and Miami to restore her season and get it back on track. This isn’t the end of a quest to raise her floor as a tennis player.
However, it is just as certainly a noticeable setback, something she will have to work hard to surmount as her season moves forward.
Yes, it is true that Pavlyuchenkova can play, and more precisely, it is true that Pavs has her own long history of being unable to consolidate career gains, which is something Bertens is only beginning to confront after her forward-moving 2018 season. This was no easy draw for Bertens, to be sure. Yet, at this stage in her career, this was precisely the kind of match Bertens needed to win to show she was ready to establish herself at a higher tier on the WTA Tour. She couldn’t escape the first week of the 2018 U.S. Open after winning Cincinnati. She needed a second-week result in Melbourne to know and trust that she was ready to raise her floor.
Now that floor has been lowered, not elevated.
Caroline Garcia knows what Kiki Bertens is going through. We will see if Kiki can course correct in the coming months.