Kiki Bertens overpowered Elina Svitolina in Cincinnati, en route to the Premier 5 title and hardcourt trophy which had eluded her until age 26. Bertens’ rise to prominence rates as one of the more notable stories of the 2018 tennis season. Precisely because of her newfound ability to perform well on non-clay surfaces, Bertens had to like her chances against Svitolina in a reunion on Saturday in Singapore.
She had to dislike how the match played out.
Bertens came up against the situation Roger Federer dealt with on Friday in the Basel ATP 500 quarterfinals against Gilles Simon: Kiki faced a player who was getting everything back and shrank the court. Being willing to hit extra balls and walk the fine line between margin and aggression was Bertens’ central task. In Cincinnati, she pulled it off against Svitolina and everyone else she faced.
Bertens could not replicate that performance in Singapore. What has to eat at the foremost Dutch player on the WTA Tour is that she lost her nerve in important situations.
A double fault by Bertens in Game 12 of the first set ceded the advantage to Svitolina. She was in on most Svitolina service games in the final set but couldn’t calibrate her groundstrokes for multi-game stretches. She broke Svitolina’s serve early in the third — in a 13-minute death-match game — but then immediately surrendered a break in the next game. She had two points to break for 5-5 when Svitolina was serving for the match but couldn’t find a way through Svitolina’s defenses.
When the smoke cleared, Svitolina won 6-4 in the third… on a day when Bertens committed 63 unforced errors across three sets. Imagine what the scoreline might have been if Bertens had committed “only” 50 errors.
To be sure — and clear: Svitolina earned everything she received. The Ukrainian has made me and others marvel in amazement at how quickly she has put all the turbulence and turmoil of 2018 behind her. Bravo to Elina.
I am merely focusing on Bertens’ perspective in this piece, since we at Tennis With An Accent are reviewing the seasons of each WTA Finals player after their exit from the tournament. Svitolina will be written about after Sunday’s final against Sloane Stephens, but for now, what is it that Bertens must focus on in the offseason which leads to 2019 and Australia?
Very simply, Bertens is now in The Garcia Zone.
Bertens found new dimensions of quality and heft in her game in the second half of the 2018 season, much as Garcia did (albeit in a more compressed time frame) in the second half of 2017. Garcia made the semis of the WTA Finals and narrowly lost a tough three-setter. Bertens has just done the same.
Garcia, though, could not back up her hope-producing 2017 surge with a strong 2018. Garcia wasn’t terrible, but she took a step back on balance, instead of making more progress. She might still figure things out in 2019 or 2020 in her own right, but 2018 was a year in which the tour punched back at Garcia, and the Frenchwoman — who was much more of a target — didn’t have a lot of answers.
Will Bertens find the answers Garcia couldn’t unearth? That is the fundamental question surrounding her 2019 season.
Bertens knows how to shape points, and on a tennis tour whose playing surfaces are generally slow, Bertens should feel very comfortable in applying her playing style and the patterns she prefers.
Kiki Bertens exceeded all expectations with her 2018 season, notching several important career milestones.
Tennis, though, is relentless in asking what players are going to do NEXT.
We are all eagerly waiting for the start of 2019 for many reasons. One of them is to see what Bertens has in store for a tour which will now scout and study her with the same intensity it reserved for Caroline Garcia a year ago.
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