It is one thing for a young player such as Aryna Sabalenka to go through growing pains in the first few months of a new tennis season. Sabalenka being punched in the teeth — while not what I was expecting in 2019 — is a very familiar and understandable story.
I should clarify that players older than Sabalenka are also vulnerable to a difficult period in a new season after they finished the previous year with a flourish. This is not something which applies solely to one subsection of players relative to their age group or experience.
Any tennis player who ends one season strongly — accumulating match wins in the second half of a year, when many first-half players are comparatively more tired due to the heavy workloads they powered through in the winter and spring — has to show she can come back at the start of the season and replicate results. This point requires no explanation; we talk about it all the time and must necessarily revisit it for each new example which comes along: Sabalenka was one such example this year. Caroline Garcia was the foremost example last year.
Kiki Bertens is part of that story in 2019 as well.
While Charleston is not a tournament where players “need” to make a loud and convincing statement about their tennis seasons, Kiki Bertens had more motivation and incentive than most of the field in South Carolina.
Bertens won this tournament last year in Charleston. She thrived at Wimbledon, won at Cincinnati, and reached the semifinal round of the WTA Finals, very nearly reaching the championship match before losing to the eventual champion, Elina Svitolina, in a 6-4 third set.
While Bertens has not played poor tennis on a general level — she won St. Petersburg and lost twice to Ashleigh Barty in tournaments where Barty reached the final (Sydney and Miami) — one thing I feel safe in saying is that Bertens is not pulling herself through tough matches the way she did a year ago. Whether it was Venus Williams at Wimbledon or Simona Halep in the Cincinnati final, Bertens won matches she hadn’t won in previous years.
At age 27, Bertens — following her big step forward in 2018 — needed to show she could sustain her winning ways at that level.
Charleston doesn’t prove she hasn’t… but Charleston did give her a chance to change her trajectory, and she couldn’t.
Maria Sakkari is a good tennis player. There is no shame in losing to Sakkari, as Bertens did on Thursday in Charleston. What can and should be pointed out, though, is the WAY in which Bertens lost.
She was up 5-3. She was up 30-15 at 5-3.
She served for the first set.
She got into a tiebreaker and led that breaker 4-1.
Bertens led and led and led… and then lost — both the first set and the match.
Losing to a good player? Nothing wrong with that. Losing after having multiple chances to close out a set? That’s the kind of loss top-tier players — when locked in — don’t ordinarily allow to get away.
One can say — with perfect accuracy — that Kiki Bertens has run into hot players in 2019, which diminishes the idea that her tennis is not up to par. She ran into an in-form Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at the Australian Open. Pavs almost made her first-ever major semifinal in Melbourne. (She lost to Danielle Collins in the quarterfinals.)
Bertens lost twice to Barty in a year when Barty is elevating her game and making the kind of statement Bertens WISHES she herself could make.
Maybe, one could argue with perfect clarity and reasonableness, Kiki Bertens will get better draws at future tournaments. A bumpy 2019 start could be little more than that.
However, much as that Venus win at Wimbledon was the kind of win which lifts a season and fills it with fresh belief, these early tournaments in 2019 (save for St. Petersburg) have provided a number of situations in which Bertens could not prevail in a tight match.
I’m not saying or even suggesting Bertens has to win Madrid or Rome to “restore” her season.
What I am saying: She needs to start winning tough matches again, the kinds of matches which will — like Federer over Albot in Miami — lead to deep runs in tournaments and a renewed sense that Kiki Bertens belongs in the mix on the weekends of tournaments.
That is what this 27-year-old needs to rediscover. Not being young the way Aryna Sabalenka is, Bertens has less time in which to change course as she leaves Charleston and heads back to Europe for red clay.