The notion that one tournament can dramatically reshape a career is best saved for the moment AFTER a player lifts a major championship trophy, not before. If Kiki Bertens doesn’t win or at least make the final at Roland Garros in 2019, her career doesn’t “become” or “remain” a failure. If Bertens doesn’t produce a strong tournament in Paris, her career doesn’t become worthless. Her Stuttgart-Madrid-Rome run of high quality doesn’t cease to be impressive. Rising to a career-high ranking (No. 4) is a significant achievement for a player who, at this time last year, thought she could become a clay-court factor on tour but showed no signs of blossoming into a threat on all surfaces.
So much has changed for Kiki Bertens over the past 12 months, almost all of it good. She did get punched in the mouth in the early months of this 2019 season, and playing the majors well is her big challenge — more on that shortly — but most of what we have seen from Bertens since the start of Roland Garros in 2018 has been decidedly positive.
Bertens’ clay-court prowess naturally and easily jumps off the television screen and into living color, but even in non-clay tournaments, Bertens — standing on the doorstep of a breakthrough — finally found a way to walk through the portal and into a bigger room in the great mansion of tennis. She won matches — Venus Williams at 2018 Wimbledon and Simona Halep in the Cincinnati final — she would have lost in previous years.
Accumulated professional experience isn’t necessarily a good thing if the accumulated experiences involve losing, and the tape recorder we all have in our own brain replays negative messages which reinforce negative responses. Bertens had to translate accumulated experiences of frustration into positive moments in which she coped with adversity and changed the final sentences of her story, one chapter at a time.
She did precisely this at Wimbledon and in Cincinnati. This is why she had a solid WTA Finals in Singapore and entered 2019 as a legitimate title contender at big tournaments on all surfaces.
Bertens — as is the case for any tennis professional who catches fire in the second half of a given season and announces her emergence on tour in the latter months of a year — became a much bigger target in the offseason. Accordingly, she had to brace for the renewed focus of the WTA Tour in the first months of 2019.
This process was rough.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova rallied to beat her at the Australian Open. Bertens played an inconsistent match against an inconsistent player, Garbine Muguruza, in Indian Wells, and could not wrest a volatile third set from the Spaniard, whose subsequent blowout loss to Bianca Andreescu in Southern California showed she was not a renewed or remade player on an upswing. That Muguruza loss was more of a missed opportunity for Bertens than a noble loss to a great player.
Bertens then had the misfortune of drawing Ashleigh Barty in Miami when the Australian was rounding into form and roaring to her first Premier Mandatory title, the biggest of her career. That loss was the least troubling of the 2019 season at big tournaments. Nevertheless, the ledger sheet shows that Bertens hadn’t gotten past the round of 16 at a major or Premier Mandatory entering Madrid.
It was there, in Spain — where she had reached the 2018 final — that Bertens got her groove back. She clearly outplayed Simona Halep to win her first Premier Mandatory title. When you outplay Halep on clay — even in Madrid’s adjusted-altitude conditions — you know you can play ball at the highest level.
Bertens might have made significant career gains on grass and hardcourts late in 2018, but clay is her citadel, as she has reminded us. This brings us to a simple but powerful reality: Bertens is about to start the major tournament where she has, by far, the best chance to win her first major title. I am not merely referring to Roland Garros in general (though of course, Paris will always be her best shot at a major). I am more precisely referring to THIS tournament, the 2019 edition.
When will Kiki Bertens have a better chance to win a major? The WTA Tour is deep and formidable, but it is also in a state of flux. Sloane Stephens has a higher ceiling than Bertens does, and the defending 2018 Roland Garros finalist is in Bertens’ quarter. Yet, Stephens is just starting her professional association with coach Sven Groeneveld. If Sloane had been able to work with Groeneveld for a few more months, it might be easier to pick her to beat Bertens in a possible quarterfinal. Right now, that coach-player duo might still be figuring out how to solve problems. Bertens carries no such uncertainties. She is legitimately the favorite to make the final in her half of the draw, with Halep safely in the other half.
Bertens made a dark-horse run to the 2016 Roland Garros semifinals. She very nearly won the first set against Serena Williams but fell just short of her first major final. Back then, however, Bertens didn’t carry much pressure. Entering last year’s Roland Garros, she was a target, and that target has only grown in size in the subsequent 12 months. Everyone knew what she was capable of entering Madrid this year, but even then, her stature wasn’t that pronounced, given her mixed plate of results in the first four months of 2019. There was still a way for her to play Madrid under the radar.
Now, she is in the center of the radar screen. She and Halep are the two players most people think will make the final.
Can Kiki Bertens embrace pressure at the tournament where she can change her career the most? If she fails, it’s not as though her other gains or achievements mean less… but when a career opportunity such as this one arises, a player in Bertens’ position — at age 27 — knows full well that this is not just another major tournament.
We can acknowledge that much, even if one tournament should not be allowed to carry an outsized level of importance in any athlete’s career.