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.
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.
Agnieszka Radwanska Gave Tennis a Vivid Visualization of Variety
Women’s tennis is in a very good place these days. Quality, depth, youth, competitive chops — they exist in abundance on a WTA Tour which has made the notion of an “easy draw” almost unheard of in 2018. Within this environment, Agnieszka Radwanska has found it hard to endure. That’s no criticism of her. Every athlete has a different shelf life, and Radwanska — who won her first WTA Tour title in 2007 at the age of 18 — enjoyed more than 10 years in the big leagues. That’s not exactly a brief career, even if Radwanska ended it on Wednesday at the age of 29.
Radwanska was a fixture in women’s tennis this decade, a regular presence in the sport’s most important tournaments until very recently. She never did chase down the major title Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep nabbed, but her legacy will be much greater than any attempt to bean-count tournaments won or lost.
Radwanska — playing in the late-career golden age of Serena Williams — picked the wrong time to be a thriving professional tennis player in the heart of her prime. If she had been born a few years earlier or later, she might have had better chances to win more of the most prestigious tournaments in the sport. As it is, she still battled Serena well in her one major final, the 2012 Wimbledon championship match which went to a third set. Radwanska was still relevant in 2016, making the Australian Open semifinals before Serena played her best tennis and defeated Poland’s 21st-century tennis star.
A 2015 WTA Finals champion and a five-time Premier Mandatory/5 winner, Radwanska — once the World No. 2 player at the height of her powers — did more than merely survive on tour for roughly a decade. No, she didn’t quite conquer the sport and lay it at her feet, but she made a very comfortable place for herself on a tour which did not play the way she played.
Radwanska carved out her own path, a reality which should serve as a lesson to younger players today.
Yes, Angelique Kerber drop-shotted Serena to death in the Wimbledon final. Yes, Magdalena Rybarikova made an out-of-nowhere run to the 2017 Wimbledon semifinals. Yes, Timea Bacsinszky has reached the Roland Garros semifinals. There are terrific practitioners of all-shot excellence in women’s tennis who have used their deft touch and clever play to achieve well… but Radwanska is the foremost exemplar of this way of being. She got more mileage out of it than her peers who tried the same approach.
Ultimately, Radwanska is the best embodiment in modern women’s tennis of how far variety can carry a player in what is often a cookie-cutter sport.
Women’s tennis is very healthy, as I noted at the start of this piece. Yet, when considering how it could become even better, an answer which always rises to the surface of consciousness is the addition of more variety into rallies.
So many women’s tennis matches put the ball on a string. Forehands and backhands, hit hard and consistently and well, from two players who move laterally just behind the baseline, create powerful and involving exchanges. The drama is considerable and the intensity unmistakable… but are the two players using the best, most direct route to winning a point? Not all the time. When two players are on the same level in terms of talent or the present day’s form, it makes sense to want to trade punches and see if your strength is stronger than your opponent’s strength. The natural and sound logic behind that approach is obvious: If you can break down your opponent’s strength, you win every important battle in a match — the tactical battle, the mental battle, the physical battle. If you are on even terms with another player and you think your strength can win the day, sure, go for it. That’s smart.
When variety comes into the picture is when the other player is more talented or — if not necessarily TALENTED — physically imposing. When you know another athlete has a higher ceiling of skill and potential and is demonstrating the capacity to actualize said potential, you can’t go blow for blow with that superior game. You, as the opponent, have to find ways to disrupt that superior game and get the better athlete to hesitate, doubt and overthink.
Tennis, like baseball, is a sport played with a stick the athlete swings in order to hit a ball hard. In baseball, the old saying is that “Good pitching stops good hitting.” Pitchers try to throw pitches at speeds and locations which cause talented hitters to hesitate, doubt, and overthink. The hitter who is comfortable will hit the ball hard and squarely. The hitter who is uncomfortable will still hit the ball, but not on the sweet spot of the bat. A hitter aspires to hit the ball very long or very hard, if not both. A good pitcher causes hitters to hit the ball short distances, generally on the ground, and with very little velocity.
It is much the same in tennis. How can a player hit shots the opponent will struggle to handle? How can a player cause her opponent to make more errors, or to hit short balls which can be turned into winners? How can a player turn a ferocious hitter into a hesitant, error-spraying machine who is completely off balance?
Variety — that’s how.
Not feeding pace — that’s how.
Angles — that’s how.
Taking the ball early to deprive the opponent of extra time in which to retrieve a shot — that’s how.
Agnieszka Radwanska, the queen of court craft, studied and developed those arts to near-perfection. Her low and deep knee bends enabled her to quickly and accurately redirect a screaming return of serve hit right at her. The quickness of the redirection deprived the opponent of time to reset after hitting that go-for-broke return. Radwanska turned her opponents’ power against them.
Radwanska realized better than most that on a tour loaded with powerful baseline hitters who loved the ball-on-a-string nature of traditional diagonal rallies and patterns, an ability to change speeds and create angles would get those hitters out of their strike zones. Radwanska used all of a ball to shape her shots. She used a fuller arsenal of speed variations and placements than most. She incorporated net play into her game more than most.
What was the result of this constant offering of variety? Radwanska made a lot out of a career which regularly lacked an imposing serve. To be more precise, few players in recent memory got more out of an assortment of tennis skills which did not include a particularly effective serve.
So many players — men in particular, but women as well — fit into the category of players who need their serve to be effective in order to win matches. A broader layer of players don’t necessarily need their serve to be great, but they do need to hit a very hard, flat assortment of groundstrokes in order to feel they are in control of a match. If their powerful shots aren’t finding the mark, they don’t have a Plan B.
Agnieszka Radwanska never ran into that problem. Despite a serve which constantly limited her margin for error, she attained World No. 2, battled Serena for a Wimbledon title, and produced an outrageously successful career.
This is how far variety can take a tennis player. Young tennis players can learn a lot from Aga.
If young players can learn an enormous amount from your career, your legacy in the larger run of tennis history is substantial.
This is what the name “Radwanska” will continue to mean 20, 30 and 50 years from now.
Darren Cahill Writes a Story of Evolution and Elasticity
Great coaches in any sport certainly have a few things in common, but when I compare tennis coaches to coaches in other sports, I usually keep coming back to basketball.
Why is this?
American-style football involves mass-scale organizational skills and a lot of delegating to assistants who help the operation go forward. This isn’t to say that delegating and teamwork aren’t part of tennis coaching staffs, but 53-man NFL rosters and 85-man college rosters are very different beasts compared to tennis player management.
Baseball gets into hands-on intervention in players’ situations. Managers must tightly manage pitch counts and engineer matchups within games. They are immersed in each game — their imprints are all over the little plot twists which comprise a baseball game in ways that tennis coaches aren’t, at least at the major-tournament level. American football, baseball, and also hockey are so much about who plays — and how often — and in what combinations. Those sports distance themselves from the solo-athlete arena of tennis.
Of the various team sports I study, basketball is the one which most closely resembles tennis in terms of the relationship between the coach and the athlete.
Like hockey, basketball is 5-on-5, but unlike hockey, basketball involves a much smaller rotation of players during a game, often less than half of the players who rotate in and out of a hockey game. When the NBA basketball playoffs arise, it is relatively common for only seven or eight players to play extended minutes (more than 20 in a 48-minute game). Yes, there is in-game coaching, unlike tennis. Yes, coaches are intervening in the action and trying to create favorable matchups, unlike tennis.
Yet, so much of the battle in basketball comes down to a coach’s ability to get the most out of one or two great players and find ways to build a small supporting cast around the superstar or two stars.
Is this not what Steve Kerr, for example, has done with the Golden State Warriors?
Mark Jackson, Kerr’s predecessor, had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green on his roster in 2014. That team did not win a single playoff series. Kerr stepped in the very next year and won 67 of 82 regular-season games, giving Golden State the best record in the league and a world championship.
The talent was already there. It took a person to get through to those two shooters — Curry and Thompson — and enable Green to figure out how to blend with them. As soon as the right person arrived as a teacher, a very small group of athletes took off.
No, basketball isn’t a solo-athlete sport — it is a team game — but it comes very close to tennis in some ways.
With this being said, Darren Cahill — whose partnership with WTA No. 1 Simona Halep ended this past week due to a desire to spend more time with family — is in many ways the Gregg Popovich of tennis.
Why this comparison and not a comparison to other great professional basketball coaches in recent years?
Here is the explanation:
Popovich, the longtime coach of the San Antonio Spurs, has shown a constant ability to adjust to players… and enable players to adjust to situations. A few details shine through in Popovich’s career which magnify that statement.
Popovich won his first NBA title in 1999, his most recent in 2014, a 15-year span. He has therefore remained relevant and able to exist in the constraints of the present moment. Industries can and do change over 15 years, so an ability to adapt is an absolute necessity for high-quality longevity, as opposed to a short burst of three or four years when a coach simply has the best players and can ride that wave. Succeeding over 15 years requires something more. Popovich has shown that.
What emerges more precisely in Pop’s prosperous basketball journey is that he has mentored athletes in their very early years, their mid-career primes, and their late-career years.
Popovich coached a very young Tim Duncan to the 1999 NBA title. He coached Duncan as an old-man athlete to the 2014 NBA title. Duncan won that 2014 championship just after turning 38, which Roger Federer will turn next August.
Popovich coached a very young Tony Parker to the 2003 NBA championship. He was there with Parker 11 years later for the 2014 title run with the Spurs. Manu Ginobili was in his prime with the Spurs in 2003. He played until age 40 under Popovich’s guidance.
The one other particularly defining aspect of Popovich’s career is that he was able to win in different ways. The first four NBA championship teams Pop had with the Spurs were defense-first teams which focused on relentless pressure and robust effort in rebounding the ball. It’s not as though the Spurs de-emphasized rebounding or effort in the latter years of the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili trio, but they did become an offense-first team which played at a faster pace, tried to win games with scoring, and paid new attention to 3-point shooting. Pop readjusted his priorities and gave his aging players more freedom on offense, changing the way his team normally played. Basic principles didn’t leave the picture, but the change freshened the minds and bodies of the older Spurs, who continued to win large numbers of games and remained a foremost contender for NBA titles.
In these details, one can find some strong connections with Darren Cahill’s coaching career.
First of all, Cahill won a major title with Lleyton Hewitt at the 2001 U.S. Open. He won a major with Simona Halep at the 2018 Roland Garros tournament. That 17-year gap is similar to Popovich’s 15-year run with titles at both ends of that time span.
Much as Popovich won with very young, middle-aged (in an athlete’s terms, not a biological human being’s terms), and old athletes, Cahill did the very same thing. He won big with a young Hewitt. Then he won with an old, late-career version of Andre Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open. In 2018, he won with the 26-year-old Halep at the French Open, one year after guiding her to year-end World No. 1, which Halep replicated this season.
Cahill took on three very distinct challenges and met them all. It’s not so much that he won major titles with three different players; it’s that he won titles with three different players at three very distinct stages of experience and understanding. THAT is the more specific connection with Popovich which stands above everything else.
Another potent and important detail: Cahill won with players on both the ATP and WTA Tours. In that sense, he crossed a bridge from one form of tennis to another, akin to Popovich winning with one style in the first decade of this century and then with a noticeably different style in the second decade of this century. (The Spurs’ reinvention occurred in their 2010-2011 season.)
Richard Williams, Marian Vajda, Toni Nadal, Tony Roche, and Paul Annacone have won larger amounts of major titles as tennis coaches. That makes them a lot like Phil Jackson, who has won several more titles than Popovich. Jackson, though, hitched his wagon to superstars to win his titles: Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls, then Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson won because he knew how to make use of the overwhelming athletic abilities of the men who were the best players in the NBA when in their primes. That applied to Jordan in the early 1990s, Shaq circa 2000, and Kobe in 2009 and 2010.
Popovich did have great players, but his great players were not takeover artists who physically dominated their opponents the way Jordan, Shaq and Kobe did. Popovich cultivated players who played blended games and had to problem-solve to succeed. That’s the Cahill way, which emerged in players who either weren’t very tall, couldn’t serve huge on a consistent basis, or both.
Hewitt’s rise to major-tournament glory at age 20 in late 2001 is — viewed through the lens of the Big 3 era — a relatively rare achievement. Agassi’s productive endurance and headline-generating resilience into his age-35 season felt like an astounding feat at the time. Cahill squeezed that out of Andre. The idea that Halep would ascend to the top of the sport and cement that rise with a major tournament championship was something plenty of tennis people always thought was possible, but no one could have known for sure. It wasn’t exactly — to borrow a basketball term — a slam dunk. Yet, Cahill got Halep over the threshold.
Cahill walked a lot of miles with a few players and enabled them to reach their potential. He won with youngsters and oldsters and athletes in between. He won at the very start of this century and was still winning in 2018 before he took this break from coaching.
Gregg Popovich set a very high standard in basketball. Darren Cahill’s coaching quality is worthy of a comparison with the sage of San Antonio.
Svitolina and Stephens in Singapore — A Story of Belonging And Letting Go
As the WTA celebrated its final year-end championship in Singapore, a new chapter seems to hover over the tour. After an era dominated by powerful offensive groundstrokes and larger-than-life personalities, the crystal ball vision of the future is becoming clearer for the WTA.
With the WTA rankings having only two 30-year-olds left in the top 20, experience has been replaced with newfound opportunity. Athleticism, shot selection, stamina, mental toughness, and counterpunching have emerged as essential weapons for the top 8 women. Aided by a WTA Finals court which is tailored to topspin and longer rallies, Elina Svitolina and Sloane Stephens emerged as the last finalists Singapore would showcase.
Svitolina and Stephens both emerged from round-robin play with 3-0 records, but their journeys to the final round were anything but secure. Svitolina and Stephens both qualified for the WTA Finals at the very last moment of opportunity. Normally in tennis, players hold their own fates in their hands in the race to the year-end championships. Yet Sloane Stephens almost singlehandedly kept Elina Svitolina out of the tournament by taking one of the last remaining wildcards into Moscow and leaving Svitolina to watch the results of Kiki Bertens and Karolina Pliskova to learn her fate. If Bertens and Pliskova had made the semifinals of the Russian tournament, then Svitolina’s only chance of participating in the finals would have been as an alternate.
So why exactly were these two on the borderline for Singapore? Well, among all of the qualifiers, they posted the lowest amount of match wins coming into the tournament. Svitolina had 39 wins and Stephens 33. Based on recent form, they would not have been the bettors’ favorites as the final two, either. Questions surrounded whether Svitolina could win matches, let alone go 3-0 against the best players in the world. She had fired her coach, there were physical fitness concerns, and there was also pressure to break through at one of the biggest events.
As told to Sport 360, Svitolina’s confidence was affected by the conversations around her 2018 season, but she wanted to use the last event of the year as testing ground for herself and the doubters.
“When I qualified for this tournament, definitely decided that I’m going to just go for it and, you know, I’m good enough, I’m going to trust my game, gonna trust myself,” she said.
Stephens also had a point to prove. She had never brought her full-flight brand of tennis to the Asian swing of tournaments. This year she won her first match during this part of the schedule in three years. In 2018, she showed frustration with those struggles and knew she could play better.
As told to Sport 360, “I think my biggest thing was obviously after the U.S. Open last year, everyone was, like, ‘Oh, she’s a one-hit wonder, she’ll never do anything again, it was just lucky, no one was playing, blah, blah, blah,’ and I think this season I was just like I really want to play a little more consistent, I want to have some better results in the bigger tournaments and just do better and show that I’m, you know, I’m a top-10 player or top whatever player.”
It is evident now that the tennis in Singapore was a secondary matter this week. What mattered the most for the two finalists was honing skills as competitors and proving to themselves that they truly belong.
It seems dissonant that Svitolina and Stephens, who have both won multiple times on the WTA’s biggest stages, feel like underachievers when they may be closer than perceived to establishing a new standard for this generation. Only time will tell, but if it is anything like this last final in Singapore on Sunday, how can you not be entertained?