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Kiki Bertens and the Magnitude of Meaning

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Kiki Bertens’ St. Petersburg championship, won on Sunday in straight sets over Donna Vekic, certainly means a great deal. Bertens has a lot to prove this season, given that she became an all-surface threat on tour in the second half of 2018. A Wimbledon quarterfinal, a Cincinnati championship, a Seoul title, and a run to the semifinals of the WTA Finals in Singapore all marked the emergence of Bertens beyond clay, which had been her sole stronghold preceding the summer of 2018.

Entering last summer, Bertens’ collection of WTA titles and runner-up plates had been confined solely to clay. Now, after this St. Petersburg title, Bertens has won three hardcourt titles in the past six months. She has collected a title early in her 2019 season on a non-clay surface. This is exactly how a player shows that a previous season’s rise up the charts was no fluke or accident. Backing up results is the defining measure of big-picture quality as a tennis player: Can you do this again and again over an extended period of time?

Bertens just took a big step in the right direction in Russia. You’re darn right this is a very meaningful title.

Now the question becomes: How meaningful?

We will have to wait to get that answer, but let’s realize — without diminishing Bertens’ achievement this week — that the future will have a lot to say about the reach and mileage of this title. Will it have legs, so to speak, and gain even more traction within the context of Bertens’ 2019 season, or will it become an aberration?

The easy interpretation — which, I hasten to say, might turn out to be entirely accurate (we gonna see, no?) — is that this St. Pete trophy will catapult Bertens to even greater heights. The other interpretation should not be assumed to carry more weight in this conversation, but it does deserve to be mentioned: Bertens took advantage of circumstances this week.

That might sound like a diminishment, but it’s not. I talk all the time about the reality that circumstances shape matches and tournaments.

At this tournament, Australian Open runner-up Petra Kvitova flew across the globe to defend her title. Naturally, she ran low on energy midway through the tournament. Donna Vekic — Bertens’ opponent in the St. Pete final — took advantage of this. Credit to Vekic.

Players always meet each other at specific intersections in a season. Players are constantly given unique opportunities to beat players they might not beat most of the time. Luck is a part of the equation, but the emphasis is on whether players take advantage of that luck when it is presented to them.

Vekic pounced on this opportunity by making the final. Bertens did this to an even greater degree by winning the event.

Bertens lost to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at the Australian Open. In St. Petersburg, Bertens made use of Pavs’ quarterfinal run by outlasting her in three sets. Had the Australian Open reversed roles — Bertens in the quarters, Pavs losing in round two — Kiki might not have won this tournament in Russia. She regrouped from a tough loss and made the circumstances of the moment her friend. She then scored hard-earned wins over Aryna Sabalenka and then Vekic to take home the title.

So what if Bertens-Pavs might have been influenced by Australia, much as Vekic-Kvitova was? This is a normal part of life on tour, and Bertens seized her chance better than any of the other players did in St. Petersburg. Bravo to her — it should never come across as an implied criticism that an athlete took advantage of favorable circumstances.

Pointing out this detail is not a criticism. Instead, it simply tries to (indirectly) make the point that next time — at the next tournament — circumstances might not line up in a player’s favor. Can a player win when circumstances are neutral at best, and quite possibly worse than neutral? That’s what Bertens and any high-climbing player must learn to do to gain more traction on tour.

We keep talking about how deep the WTA Tour is. Accordingly, WTA players can have high hopes dashed by quality opponents early in tournaments. Bertens felt the weight of that reality against Pavlyuchenkova in Melbourne. Two weeks after that loss, Bertens avenged it… and then avenged a loss she suffered to Vekic earlier this year in Brisbane.

Bertens has shown in 2019 that her hardcourt prowess — while not always on display each week — is still very much intact. St. Petersburg affirmed her newfound identity as an upper-tier WTA player. The extent of that affirmation — and what it means for the rest of the tour — won’t be known for awhile.

That’s not a criticism of Bertens or any player in a similar spot. It merely means that this story needs a few more chapters before its evolutionary arc can be properly defined.

What matters for now is this: After a disappointing Australian Open, St. Petersburg rewrote Bertens’ 2019 story in the right ways.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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