The upward movement in Kiki Bertens’ career — a movement which led to her first Premier Mandatory title on Saturday in Madrid — did not begin on clay.
Remember: Bertens made the Wimbledon quarterfinals and lost a close match to Julia Goerges. She defeated Venus Williams, a Wimbledon genius and a tennis icon, to make the quarters at SW19. That performance came out of nowhere, given Bertens’ relatively barren track record at the All-England Club.
Once that performance occurred, however, Bertens built on it — on hardcourts. She went to Cincinnati and, in the final, met the same player she defeated this past Saturday in the Madrid final: Simona Halep.
In that match, Bertens was beaten out of the blocks, as Halep imposed her style of play and took the first set. The two players ventured into a second-set tiebreaker in which Halep stood on the doorstep of victory, but Bertens snatched it away with bold strokes and a fearless approach to crunch-time points. As soon as Bertens took the second set, the pendulum swung massively in her favor, given that Halep had won Montreal the week before and had played a ton of tennis. Bertens wasn’t carrying nearly the same amount of miles, and she roared through the third set to win her first Premier 5 championship.
Wimbledon grass, then Cincinnati hardcourts. This was the beginning of the ascent Kiki Bertens has made, which has now led to a climb to No. 4 in the WTA rankings following her Madrid championship, in which she overpowered Halep and dictated most of the match. Halep is supremely at home on clay and has done very well in Madrid over the years, but Bertens sent a reminder on Saturday that she, too, is most at home on red dirt. It used to be Nuremberg, Germany, but now it is Madrid, where she has reached back-to-back finals and managed to lift a trophy in 2019.
In one week, Bertens has significantly changed how her season is perceived.
Bertens did win St. Petersburg, and she did make a deep run in Stuttgart, but for the most part, the first four months of the season were marked by modest results in the important tournaments. In Australia and Indian Wells and Miami, she did not get past the round of 16. Bertens made herself more of a target on the WTA Tour with her strong second half of 2018, and in the first four months of 2019, the tour punched back.
Clay season was indeed a time when Bertens had to reshape the trajectory of her year and reestablish herself as a top-tier presence on tour.
That she managed to do so in such an emphatic and decisive manner was the perfect way to make January and March (in particular) fade away.
Now comes the next big challenge for Bertens: carrying good form in Madrid to Paris in a few weeks. Few players will enter Roland Garros with more of a chance to win the year’s clay-court major tournament.
Paris can wait for a short while. Kiki Bertens delivered the goods at a significant tournament in Spain. She should definitely take the time to savor what she has accomplished and internalize how good it feels to claim the biggest title of her career to date.