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HALEP-STEPHENS: A CONTEST OF COMBINATIONS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Whenever spectators are fanning themselves, you know the weather is hot. Spectators in Montreal were indeed fanning themselves throughout Sunday’s Premier 5 final between Simona Halep and Sloane Stephens. As is often the case in big-time professional tennis, a significant tournament was played in a locality during that locality’s hottest time of year. Touring professionals have come to expect that when they pack their bags and hop on a plane to the next city on tour, they will often step into a flaming den of hot sun, maybe also searing humidity. The effort involved in playing attritional tennis at the highest level means that after 20 minutes of very hard work — chasing down that forehand, scrambling to hit the next backhand, straining to hit a huge serve down break point — their attire will be soaked.

Sweating in copious quantities is healthy — it is how the body cools itself down, part of how our biological mechanisms are wondrously structured. Yet, a sweat-soaked piece of athletic apparel also means that an athlete is playing with added weight. I never made the tennis team in high school — I was on the student newspaper, as you might well expect; I wasn’t a jock — but I don’t have to have played competitive tennis to tell you that a sweat-soaked shirt weighs a lot more than a dry shirt that has been freshly clean. I know that from having mowed my mother’s lawn a few times this summer in 105-degree Phoenix heat.

Beyond the added weight of a sweat-soaked top, WTA superstars such as Halep and Stephens have to play with ample taping on their feet, given the punishment they put themselves through. Halep needed a retaping during Sunday’s final, having picked up blisters earlier in the tournament, one in which she had to play two matches in one day and then make a very short turnaround between a Friday night quarterfinal and an early-afternoon semifinal on Saturday.

Why go through these details, you might reasonably ask? So much of the experience of playing tennis involves immense physical output and strain. The athlete puts her body through the wringer simply through the actual process of playing, and also through playing at the hottest time of year. Those details and actions described above are normal parts of playing tennis… and they don’t even touch on the reality of facing a particular — and particularly skilled — opponent.

Does this begin to fully encompass the holistic challenge Halep and Stephens faced on Sunday in Quebec? You be the judge.

If it DOES, simply know that there’s more to the story. If it DOESN’T, what follows might begin to satisfy your sense of the scene in Montreal.

Bud Collins, the late, great tennis historian and commentator who chronicled the Open Era of professional tennis for American audiences since its very start in 1968, famously called tennis “boxing without the blood.” The savage, attritional elements of tennis described above are relevant in that they unpack the taxing and sometimes torturous nature of playing professional tennis. They feed into the boxing analogy, but they don’t entirely COMPLETE it.

When two high-level players stand in the tennis rectangle — aka, the boxing ring — the analogy is brought to full life.

What was always easy for me to appreciate about the “boxing without the blood” analogy: Every shot hit by players was a punch. POW! Take that! And THAT! And THAT! Of course every smack of the ball would be compared to a jab or a roundhouse or an uppercut, the various kinds of punches boxers throw at each other. Of course tennis uses the term “counterpuncher,” which is what Halep and Stephens both do very well — it doesn’t completely define them as tennis players, but they are both very skilled at the practice. If you watched both the French Open final and Sunday’s clash in Montreal, you surely noticed that the player who hit the first ambitious shot in a rally and tried to dictate the point did not enjoy overwhelming success.

Yes, it is quite true that Halep found some cheap points on serve late in the third set, including an ace at *3-2 and later a serve-and-forehand 1-2 combo at *5-4, 15-15 which helped her get to the finish line, but those were exceptional moments and not routine occurrences. In many points during the match, one player tried to open up the court, but the opponent got to the ball and redirected it such that the initial striker had to switch from offense to defense and hit an uncomfortable shot on the run, which she often missed. The player who displayed initiative by trying to throw the first punch often lost that point three to five shots later. “Being aggressive” sounds great, but Halep and Stephens both know they have to pick their spots in order to be effective against each other.

This last point unearths a new level of detail in the “boxing without the blood” analogy which is so apt in professional tennis.

As noted above, I could always identify with the idea that every shot is a punch. That’s easy. That’s Tennis 101, an entry-level freshman-year course. The new layer of insight into the boxing analogy provided by the Montreal final is that much as boxers are always trying to find the right combinations of punches, tennis players try to do the same. The particular use of “combinations” is part of a Tennis 201 course, or maybe even 301.

Think about it: Boxers, when they stare at each other and dance around a boxing ring, have a scouting report just as tennis players do.

“This fighter is good at blocking eye-level punches, especially from his left side, which is the opponent’s right hand.”

“That fighter is good at blocking body punches from his right side, the opponent’s left hand.”

Between rounds — much as Darren Cahill (Halep) or Kamau Murray (Stephens) instructed their charges during this Montreal match — a boxing trainer will tell his fighter to get the opponent on the ropes, or keep the opponent moving instead of allowing him to stand. Some fighters are better lateral movers, while others prefer to stand in the middle of the ring and let the opponent come to them. Trainers will therefore tell their boxers to do what the opponent is not inclined to like.

Can we see how the tennis-boxing comparisons take on much deeper texture when seen in this light?

Halep would rather hit a backhand than a forehand if she had to choose between those shots. Stephens would rather move a lot during a point than stand still. These are only two tendencies out of several which Halep and Stephens display, but they might reasonably be viewed as the two central tendencies which shaped how the rest of Sunday’s match — and the French Open final — was played. Halep tried to hit in the middle third of the court to keep Stephens from moving, but when Stephens was able to get on the run, especially to the deuce corner, she would regularly hit crosscourt, not down the line, in order to force Halep to her forehand side. Stephens almost won the first set due to a bunch of Halep forehand errors, but Sloane flinched late in the set, which forced her to battle uphill for most of the next hour. Stephens played spectacular tennis to take the second set, and she had game point for 3-2 in the third, but just when it seemed she was making a decisive run, errors flooded her game, and Halep served better in the subsequent 20 to 25 minutes to finish off the win.

2018 Roland Garros - 5 Jun

Image – Jimmie 48

The match was a study in combinations. Both players knew what the bread-and-butter combinations were on each side, so they usually trusted those combinations in moments of importance. Yet, over the course of over two and a half hours in very difficult weather conditions, not every combination can be the same. Yes, a boxer might use a scouting report to throw the combinations of punches the opponent is weaker at defending, but over the course of 15 rounds, he has to mix up those combinations to set up a winning sequence which can land a telling blow. So it also is in tennis, and so it also was in Halep-Stephens.

Halep threw in a few drop shots late in the second set, an abrupt change of tactics. Stephens ran down those drop shots and produced some of the best points of the match, but Halep made Stephens work to win the second set. Halep also made Stephens realize that while running laterally is her most natural way of playing a point, she might have to run vertically within the court (forward and backward). That was all part of the test to see if an athlete is vulnerable to certain kinds of movements or patterns.

Another variation came midway through the third set: Most of the time when serving from the ad court in an important moment, Halep goes for a T serve, but at *3-2 and 30-15, trying to protect the break lead she had just gained when Stephens briefly lost focus at 2-2, Halep went for the wide serve to the corner of the box. She aced Stephens and held for 4-2, consolidating her advantage but also gaining the inner boost of knowing she could win points easily in the midst of this prolonged heavyweight bout. Hitting that ace was like hitting Stephens in the face with a jab — not a massive punch, but one which scored points on all judges’ cards and tilted the psychological balance late in a close contest.

Halep had thrown a punch to the right spot, properly anticipating that Stephens expected it to come from a different angle.

Boxing — I mean tennis — in its eternal search for combinations, staged against the backdrop of extreme bodily attrition, was never more real than it was in Montreal on Sunday.

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Roundtable – WTA Major Showdowns in 2019

Matt Zemek

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Robert Deutsch - USA TODAY Sports

What is the one WTA matchup you really want to see at the major tournaments in 2019?

JANE VOIGT — @downthetee

The unrivaled match of the U.S. Open was a fourth-round encounter between Naomi Osaka and Aryana Sabalenka. It was the only match of Osaka’s tour de force in New York that went three sets. Osaka, up against what could be described as a mirror image of herself in Sabalenka, broke through a wall of competition that day she hadn’t been asked to do in three prior rounds and, perhaps, her career. This was a match that could have defined Osaka in unflattering terms, so the burden of victory lay at her feet.

Sabalenka, also 20, is, like Osaka, a woman at the threshold of a promising career. She arrived at the Open having won her first title at the Connecticut Open. Her powerful groundstrokes compared equally to those of Osaka. Their serves were weapons. Their on-court intuition was honed. Thinking back to that Labor Day encounter, the meeting feels like a sign of things to come. Another matchup between them, this time at the Australian Open, could confirm a budding rivalry that is much needed on the WTA Tour. It would be an ideal start to the 2019 Grand Slam season.

ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad

There have been two constant features in the WTA since 2008: Serena Williams, if fit, is an excellent bet to go deep in a big tournament; hardly anybody else is.

There was a period between 2011 and 2013 when Viktoria Azarenka looked like she might establish herself as the next bankable player, when she competed in 7 semifinals out of a possible 10 major tournaments. But the 2013 U.S. Open marked the last time Azarenka went deep in a major.

To my mind, this has deprived the WTA of part of the lifeblood of the sport: compelling new rivalries. To take one example, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep, then 27 and 26 respectively, met in the 2018 Australian Open final as the No. 2 and No. 1 seed respectively, but were playing each other for only the seventh time. (The woeful WTA site lists a 0-0 head-to-head record. Can’t they afford decent programmers?)

Sloane Stephens, last year’s U.S. Open winner, and Naomi Osaka, the 2018 champion, have met only once to date – in Acapulco in 2016. Stephens came out on top then, 6-3, 7-5. I’d like to see Osaka’s confident shotmaking against Stephens’ superb measured defense and length of shot in 2019 – and have that be one of a suite of excellent new rivalries in the women’s game.

MERT ERTUNGA — @MertovsTDesk 

When answering this question, I am assuming that both players are in-form, because I am interested in the challenges the particular matchup brings to the table. With that in mind, the one matchup I would like to see is Madison Keys versus Simona Halep at the U.S. Open.

These two players have not faced each other since 2016 and never on U.S. soil. Thus, Halep’s 5-1 lead (including the walkover in Rome this year) does not mean much, considering that Keys has improved by leaps and bounds over the last two years. Let’s also keep in mind that Keys has shown great form at the U.S. Open, reaching the final in 2017 and semifinals in 2018, losing each time to the eventual winner. It is her favorite major of the year, probably the one where she dreams of making her big splash.

With Simona’s wonderful footwork and Madison’s high-octane striking, played possibly on what could be called “Madison’s turf,” this matchup promises high-quality tennis. Naturally, the speed of the surface will matter. If the snail-pace surface of this year still lingers in 2019 (I hope not), we could have long rallies in which Keys would need to take bigger cuts at balls to put the ball past one of the best movers in women’s tennis in the Open Era (Arantxa, I have not forgotten you).

This is also a baseline challenge for Simona, who would need to rely on what I believe to be her biggest source of improvement from the baseline, which is the ability to change the direction of the ball as well as accelerate. In the past, her backhand down the line was a step ahead of the other patterns in terms of changing direction and accelerating, but the current version of Halep is able to do that from anywhere on the court.

This matchup would push each player to dig deeper in their manuals of problem-solving. Two examples: Keys would need to put her drop shots to use in order not to let Halep get too comfortable at the baseline. Simona would need to pay special attention to her first-serve placement in order not to let Madison unleash from the first ball of the rally on her serves.

Hopefully, each will get to the end of August without having suffered any serious injury, ready to launch a title run in New York.

BRIANA FOUST — @4TheTennis

Since Serena won her 23rd major, the slams have been a free-for-all on the women’s side, but the WTA has still not produced a consistent rivalry during that time frame. There has not been a case of two women pushing each other at majors since Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka during 2012 and 2013. One matchup I want to see more of from the WTA at major tournaments in 2019 is Simona Halep versus Sloane Stephens.

These two have the perfect ingredients for a compelling rivalry: close in age, popular major champions, still improving their styles of tennis, and they are both competitive on all surfaces. Their final in Montreal this year was inspiring to watch as a tennis fan. Halep and Stephens used every shot in the book and every inch of the court in trying to outmaneuver the other.

That match reminded me a lot of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic during the 2010-2012 period. To me that was the zenith of their rivalry, which culminated in the six-hour 2012 Australian Open final, but during those years we saw those guys push each other to their absolute limits while reimagining what could be possible on a tennis court. I think Halep and Stephens have the potential to do the same.

MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek

Venus Williams-Garbine Muguruza at Wimbledon in 2017 gave us a very compelling first set before Muguruza ran away with the second. Serena Williams-Naomi Osaka at the 2018 U.S. Open was a fascinating match until YOU KNOW WHAT happened.

In 2019, I would love to see another major-tournament matchup, ideally a semifinal or final, between two players with at least a 10-year age gap between them.

In 2018, one week before winning her first Wimbledon and her third major, Angelique Kerber calmly dissected Naomi Osaka in the third round on Centre Court. Osaka was recovering from an abdominal injury she suffered in the grass warm-up season, so she was not in prime position to mount a challenge to Kerber. Maybe the next time, that matchup could sparkle on grass, but an element of mystery has been removed from it.

Let’s try the other 20-year-old on the WTA Tour who made a splash this past summer: Aryna Sabalenka. Let’s see her face Kerber on Wimbledon laws next year.

I don’t like to predict big riches and successes for very young players until I see “the moment,” the loud and thunderous statement which makes greatness too overwhelming to ignore. Sabalenka certainly impressed in Cincinnati, New Haven and New York, but Osaka captured “the moment.” I would love to see Sabalenka – tested by the WTA Tour in the first half of 2019 – make her way to the All-England Club as a target, which did not apply to her 2018 visit. That trip to SW19 was cut short in round one by Mihaela Buzarnescu.

If Sabalenka makes a deep run at Wimbledon in 2019, she could take the place of Jelena Ostapenko in 2018. Ostapenko met Kerber in a young-versus-old semifinal, and Kerber found the consistency needed to short-circuit the always-aggressive Latvian. Sabalenka hits big, but she shows signs of being able to play with more margin than Ostapenko does.

Imagine three sets of Sabalenka slugging versus Kerber court coverage. Oh, yeah.

You know you want it.

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HALEP AND THE CINCINNATI PRINCIPLE

Matt Zemek

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Cincinnati is one of the more disjointed and attritional tournaments on either tennis tour. The fact that it comes in the second half of the tennis season, the week after a challenging tournament in Canada, offers considerable reinforcement of that claim. The added details of recent years have only made this tournament even more physically and mentally demanding. In 2016, the Rio Olympics had been sandwiched between Canada and Cincinnati, making it very hard for a lot of pros who had gone to Brazil to then fly to Ohio and compete. Last year and this year, rain caused multiple participants to play multiple matches on the same day. These were not normal situations with normal conditions.

The question had to be asked after the 2016 and 2017 Cincinnati WTA tournaments, and it has to be asked now in 2018: Will Cincinnati results carry over to the U.S. Open? Will they be indicators or aberrations?

In 2016, the tournament was an indicator: Karolina Pliskova beat Angelique Kerber in the Cincinnati final. The two met 20 days later in the U.S. Open final, with Kerber pulling out a riveting three-set victory. In 2017, the needle moved in the direction of aberration. Of the eight Cincinnati quarterfinalists last year, only two — Pliskova and Sloane Stephens — made the U.S. Open quarterfinals. Only one, Stephens, made the semifinals or better.

Now we arrive at 2018. More rain, more double matches in the same day, more weary players. Petra Kvitova was tired and worn out in the searing hot sun on Saturday in the semifinals against Kiki Bertens. Simona Halep was able to play four full matches to make the final and then two full sets in the final, but she didn’t have a third set in her after playing two extended weeks of hardcourt tennis in North America. Kiki Bertens played legitimately strong tennis to win the championship in Ohio, but she was also the fittest player in the field while others battled combinations of fatigue (Stephens) and injury (a heavily-bandaged Elise Mertens).

Will Cincinnati be a positive indicator for the U.S. Open? Keep in mind that Elina Svitolina’s Rome championships before the French Open have not been indicators at Roland Garros. Kvitova’s titles in grass warm-up events have not carried over to Wimbledon. Caroline Wozniacki’s Eastbourne win this year did not mean much at Wimbledon. One could make the argument that a full week of tennis hurt her Wimbledon prospects.

Where does this leave us before the U.S. Open? Everyone will be wondering if Bertens can carry her dramatic rise into and through New York, but there isn’t any precedent for her in the Big Apple. Defending champion Sloane Stephens didn’t last long in Cincinnati, but her run in Montreal reaffirmed her status as a leading contender, so she doesn’t fall under the banner of “a Cincinnati test case” in Flushing Meadows. Kvitova has never made a U.S. Open semifinal, regardless of Cincinnati results. What she does in New York exists on its own terms.

No, the best test case of Cincinnati is the woman who came one point from winning it and becoming the first woman to win the Canada-Cincinnati double since 1973: Simona Halep.

The Romanian carried her Cincy performances to New York in 2015 and 2016. In 2015, she made the Cincinnati final and the U.S. Open semifinals. In 2016, she made the Cincy semis and the U.S. Open quarters. Her Open quarterfinal loss to Serena Williams was a high-level match played with the polish and ferocity of a final. In 2017, the road took a turn, but not in a normal way. Halep made the Cincinnati final again, only to lose in the first round at the U.S. Open. The twist, though, was that Halep drew an unseeded Maria Sharapova in round one, and Sharapova proceeded to play a terrific match, aided by ample rest which Halep — in marked contrast — did not have.

This piece is being written before the U.S. Open draw, so we don’t know what surprises might await Halep, but let’s say for the sake of argument that there are no unusually bad draws (Serena Williams before the quarterfinals) for Simona. If she doesn’t receive unusually awful luck with her path through the bracket, this year will enable her to say that last year was a rare bolt of lightning.

If, on the other hand, Halep gets a manageable draw and still stubs her toe — as she did against Hsieh Su-Wei at Wimbledon — she will leave New York with a bitter taste, and her Cincinnati foray, in which she overcame fatigue to nearly win the tournament, will be forgotten for how impressive it was.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, it is said. What happens in Cincinnati might stay there, or it might travel to New York. Simona Halep is certainly hoping for the latter answer, and she will soon get the chance to speak with her racquet at the USTA National Tennis Center.

Image – Aditya Prabhakar(Tennis with an Accent)
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KIKI BERTENS REWRITES HER STORY

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

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.

_DSC0063

Image – Aditya Prabhakar(Tennis with an Accent)

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.

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