When Kiki Bertens was asked, after she won her biggest title to date in Cincinnati eight days ago, what she was most proud of about her previous two weeks, the Dutchwoman did not hesitate in her response.
“That I just played so many matches and just keep on going, so many great wins, and that I could really enjoy it,” said Bertens, whose title triumph on the hard courts of Mason, Ohio saw her defeat four top-10 players including the top-ranked Simona Halep in the final, saving a championship point along the way.
“Winning a title like this, my first hard-court title, and then against No. 1 of the world, getting my career high on Monday. I don’t know. It’s just coming everything together, I guess.”
Just nine months ago, nothing felt together for Bertens.
The 26-year-old was seriously contemplating retiring from the sport because she couldn’t feel the joy on the court. She had hit a then career-high ranking of 18 and won two titles in Gstaad and Nürnberg. But still she was miserable.
At the end of the season, her coach, Dutch former top-50 player Raemon Sluiter, told her she should quit tennis if she was feeling this unhappy, but luckily, Bertens returned from her holiday with a new plan, and eagerness to continue.
She is now ranked 13 in the world, has transformed from a clay-court specialist to a Wimbledon quarter-finalist and Cincinnati champion, and has gone 8-0 in her last eight matches against top-10 players, all of which have come on either grass or hard courts.
Sport360 and the New York Times sat down with Sluiter after Bertens’ success in Cincinnati to find out how she went from being a clay-courter considering retirement, to being a genuine contender for the US Open crown.
Kiki was 0-11 against top-10 players on non-clay surfaces before this year’s Wimbledon. She’s 8-0 against such opposition since. How do you explain that?
I think it’s typical for her going from one extreme to the other. I think we always knew that she could play better on hard court because I see her practice every day and I see the level and it’s tough to compare practice level with match level but it was quite far apart. Probably Wimbledon changed everything in that, that she got the belief that she belongs at these kind of tournaments and not only belongs but that she can be a dangerous player if she’s feeling the ball and especially if she’s doing the right things. Then it all comes together in a week like this.
She told us the other day that she was thinking about retiring at the end of last season. What was that like for you and how did you guys get through that?
We had a shocking last three months of the year last year. Okay results were not good but I like to be the guy, it’s a terrible word that all the coaches use, but I like to watch the ‘process’ and not necessarily the results, in the end it’s about that, I trust the process and the process was shocking.
She couldn’t find the energy to work, if she had a few victories, even before on clay, it was just relief instead of excitement when she did something. I remember her winning Gstaad in that year, in July, and then next week was Bastad and she was complaining the whole evening when she won Gstaad because we had to go to Bastad and it was tough with flights. I said ‘sorry you just won a tournament today, I think we’d better be happy and take it as it comes’. But she couldn’t so those were very clear signals that she wasn’t happy at all with her tennis life basically.
So the only thing, if I could talk a little bit by myself, that got me going was that Kiki and Johanna Larsson were still in the Race to Singapore and that was something to achieve so we could fully focus on doubles, also for Jo, because we needed to do that, we needed to respect that, otherwise I would have been gone at least six weeks before the season ended and Kiki would have probably stopped the season. So that was the only thing, so it was really heavy.
They made finals in Singapore, did that help?
After the doubles in Singapore, which were nice, when she was still struggling but made finals, I said ‘I’m not going to continue like this and I strongly advise you that with the way you feel that you also quit’. Because she was No. 32 in the world, but if it doesn’t make you happy it’s not worth it. And that sounds almost arrogant, I can understand, for people that aren’t into this, but money isn’t everything.
And then we both went to Bali, other sides of the island. Then we talked when she came back and she came back with a piece of paper about things that she wanted to change and that’s something that is unlike her.
Because as you can see now, I’m the person talking and she’s listening and I wanted her to talk because it’s about her and then suddenly she came with points, and came with a few things that I had to change. That was for me the point where I was like ‘okay, you’re taking things more in your own hands, I’m on board again’.
And from that point on, we started practicing the offseason in the beginning of December, I think there hasn’t been one bad day. And that’s the biggest thing. The season before, last two seasons were, number-wise, not that bad. But a lot of times when she would have had a tough loss, next day she would start eating, she didn’t want to practice, she would lose a week by doing wrong things but by doing the wrong things, to recover from that, you need two or three more weeks again as well so then it’s very up and down.
This year she loses to Venus in a thriller in Miami and the next day she’s on the treadmill and the day after she’s already practicing on clay for Charleston. And that has been the most important thing for this year.
So is finding the joy again the reason she’s doing so well now?
I think joy and belief. She still has a tendency to not really believe. But I think that’s starting to change now and that’s fun and good to see.
What was on that list she came up with after Bali?
It wasn’t like a big list. Play a little bit less doubles, not necessarily to focus on singles but to have a little bit more time off. She said that I talk too much, so if I could tone that down a little bit. So I tried to do that, which is not easy for me. And there were a few more points, it wasn’t necessarily about those things, but the fact that she wrote things herself.
How do you think she’ll deal with the attention after winning such a big title in Cincinnati then head to New York as one of the favourites?
It will be tough, I wouldn’t necessarily say that she was on cloud nine this week, everything came together but it’s not like she played lights-out tennis, I think she played tennis within herself, so that’s something probably the most important thing to take from this week. But of course people are going to watch you a little bit more and that’s something she doesn’t like.
She played for a full stadium, she showed who she was today but if she can choose if she plays on Centre or Court 19, it’s going to be Court 19. That won’t change but she takes it as it comes. And I think that’s about as good as it gets.
You’re not going to change somebody’s personality completely, but if she takes it as it comes, it’s fine. Of course people are going to look a little bit more what she’s going to do, but if you’re good enough, you’re good enough, and if not, you’re not. And if you’re not, it’s not a bad thing.
Sakkari is in awe of her fellow Greek’s rise this season, and was following closely when the 20-year-old Tsitsipas made history in Toronto earlier this month, becoming the youngest player to beat four top-10 opponents at a single tournament since the ATP World Tour was established in 1990.
After defeating Dominic Thiem (No. 8), Novak Djokovic (No. 10), Alexander Zverev (No. 3) and Kevin Anderson (No. 6), Tsitsipas fell to Rafael Nadal in the Toronto final, which coincided with his 20th birthday.
His run came on the heels of Sakkari’s runner-up showing in San Jose just one week earlier, where she was featuring in her maiden WTA final.
The Greek duo are both seeded at the US Open this fortnight, with Tsitsipas at No. 15 and Sakkari at 32.
“Oh my God, goosebumps. He’s, I cannot describe it… he’s unbelievable,” Sakkari said of Tsitsipas in Cincinnati last week.
“The thing is that I’m not going to watch his matches again. I couldn’t watch, I couldn’t watch. I was talking to my best friend back home, she was watching as well, and I told her, ‘How can you watch my matches?’ I was watching Stefanos and I was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s this?’ The match with Anderson and of course with Nadal the second set. It’s incredible.
“He’s 20 years old, you look at him inside the court, the balance that he has, the choices, the decisions; it’s something unique.
“He’s one guy who inspires me. After doing what he did, I want to do the same thing. He’s a player and an athlete I’m going to look after and it’s very important for me to have him because if I’m alone on the tour (from Greece), I have no one to look after.
“So for me, even if he’s a guy and it’s something different, Stefanos is a role model for us and for me.”
She added: “It’s unbelievable what he has done. I’m not going to say more things because he might read them and get stressed but I have very high expectations for him. But he’s going to get to the top very, very soon, he’s already [there]. It’s good to look after another player from your country, and we are only two. I think it’s a great thing and it’s great for our country.”
Sakkari has been rather inspirational herself. The 23-year-old is one of the most successful tennis players in Greek tennis history and her recent appearance in the final of the WTA Premier-level tournament in San Jose has helped her reach a career-high ranking of No. 30.
As Sakkari puts it, she is a “proud Spartan”, and is happy to fly the flag for her country around the globe. On Monday at the US Open, the large Greek community present in the area is likely to come out in full force to support both her and Tsitsipas in their first-round matches, with Sakkari taking on local wildcard Asia Muhammad, and her countryman facing Spanish veteran qualifier Tommy Robredo.
“I think now it’s going to be even more because having two players doing well the weeks right before the US Open – of course it feels great. To see Greeks outside of Greece coming to support you, they’re even more passionate. So I’m looking forward to see what’s going to happen,” said Sakkari ahead of the Open.
Coached by 2002 Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson, along with Tom Hill – a recent graduate from Pepperdine University – Sakkari has made steady progress over the past 12 months, and is already up 21 spots in the rankings since the start of the season.
Team Sakkari has a flawless sunglass game going on… pic.twitter.com/89FwYCnnDI
— Jimmie48 Photography (@JJlovesTennis) August 26, 2018
“Of course I’ve improved. Two years ago, or one year ago, before I started with Thomas, I was like two metres behind the baseline and I was running down everything, which was enough to make it to the top-100 but then since I started with Thomas, we stepped inside the court. Of course sometimes you have to stay back if the other one is hitting hard. I have improved a lot my offensive game,” she explains.
“Now I have a clear idea of what I have to do on court. Of course you cannot do it every single match. If I can do it every single match it’s going to be great but the thing is that I will try to do it more consistently and every match have like a base. And of course the serve has to be quite big. But now I think I’m more used to the level, I get to play and practice with all the top girls. And some of the girls I’ve played twice or three times, like Naomi Osaka, or Venus Williams.”
Sakkari looked up to Kim Clijsters growing up, along with Serena Williams and Justine Henin, and is constantly trying to work on her aggressiveness on court.
More players are taking notice of her on tour and her on-court fighting spirit has already troubled several top stars.
“That’s what I want to get to. That’s my goal. I’m not Maria Sharapova, I’m not Serena Williams – okay I’m strong but I’m not tall, I have a good serve but not a serve or strokes that will make me win the match with one shot. My goal is to become a very solid player and that’s what I’m working on.
“I want to become one of the players who is not going to be an easy draw for the other ones.”
She may not be one of the tall players on tour with massive groundstrokes but a quick look at the current top-10 in the world rankings reveals that the shorter, counter-punchers are enjoying lots of success at the moment.
“It’s not only Simona [Halep], of course she’s No. 1, it’s also Caroline [Wozniacki], Sloane [Stephens], [Elina] Svitolina, [Angelique] Kerber… which I think gives me a lot of confidence to try to be one of them,” said Sakkari.
Sakkari and Johansson teamed up a year ago and the partnership paid dividends almost immediately as she made the third round at the 2017 US Open and the semis in Wuhan shortly after.
She spent the offseason training with him in Monaco and Dubai, and through him, she got to spend time on court with his friends, star siblings Marat Safin and Dinara Safina.
“I have a lot of confidence in him and I admire him,” Sakkari says of her Swedish coach.
“He inspires me, that’s what I told him the first time when we sat down, I told him that having him outside the court, he inspires me to play, which I think is the most important thing. Tom [Hill] is also doing a great job following the instructions of Thomas then he’s not here.
“We all know Thomas was a great player and only thinking that he has done what you’re doing and many more things and he has been in the same situation and it’s also the chemistry that you have with one person.
“I think we have a very good partnership for that reason. Even outside and inside the court, we get to understand each other, so that’s a very big thing and that’s why many players are changing coaches maybe after a couple of months because they don’t have this, that’s my opinion.”
Yet to reach the second week of a major, Sakkari feels ready to take that next step at the Slams.
“I think I’ve played the third round in all four Slams, so for me making the fourth round, the second week, it’s something very big and something that I really want to achieve,” she says.
— Timea Bacsinszky (@TimeaOfficial) August 23, 2018
The US Open commences on Monday with the top half of both the men’s and women’s draws in action, which means defending champions Rafael Nadal and Sloane Stephens will take to the court on opening day.
Known before 1968 as the US National Championships, the US Open is the second-oldest of the four Grand Slams after Wimbledon, and the only one to have been played each year since its inception in 1881.
First held in 1887, the US Open women’s singles championship is being staged for the 132nd time.
Here’s a look at some of the standout stats and figures ahead of the 2018 US Open.
0 – players in the Open Era have managed to win the US Open without dropping a set.
3 – matches lost by top-seeded Rafael Nadal in 2018 — the same number he lost in 2013 entering the US Open. Nadal is 40-3 this season and was 53-3 at the start of the 2013 US Open, where he won his 13th Grand Slam title.
6 – Roger Federer is targeting a sixth US Open title which would give him sole ownership of the top spot on the leaderboard of most trophies won here in the Open Era. He is currently in a three-way tie with Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras with five.
7 – former US Open champions present in the 2018 draw: Nadal (2010, 2013, 2017), Stan Wawrinka (2016), Novak Djokovic (2011, 2015), Marin Cilic (2014), Andy Murray (2012), Juan Martin del Potro (2009), Roger Federer (2004-08).
9 – Former US Open junior champions in the draw: Felix Auger-Aliassime (2016), Taylor Fritz (2015), Borna Coric (2013), Jack Sock (2010), Grigor Dimitrov (2008), Ricardas Berankis (2007), Andy Murray (2004), Richard Gasquet (2002), Gilles Muller (2001).
10 – years since Federer last won the US Open.
11 – former college players in the draw
13 – The ‘Big Four’ have dominated the top two spots in the world rankings for the past 13 years. That could change after the US Open with Juan Martin Del Potro and Alexander Zverev both having a chance to surpass Federer and become the new world No. 2.
13 – months since the ‘Big Four’ all competed at the same tournament. Their last reunion was at Wimbledon 2017. They finally reunite again at this US Open.
16 – NextGen (21-and-under) players in the draw: Hubert Hurkacz (21), Lloyd Harris (21), Alexander Zverev (21), Jaume Munar (21), Andrey Rublev (20), Taylor Fritz (20), Michael Mmoh (20), Frances Tiafoe (20), Ugo Humbert (20), Stefanos Tsitsipas (20), Casper Ruud (19), Alex de Minaur (19), Denis Shapovalov (19), Corentin Moutet (19), Felix Auger-Aliassime (18), Jenson Brooksby (17).
37 – At 37 years of age, Federer is bidding to become the oldest US Open champion in the Open Era, and oldest US Open finalist since 1974.
42 – 30-and-over players in the draw.
2 – players are seeded for the first time at a Grand Slam: Aryna Sabalenka (No. 26) and Maria Sakkari (No. 32).
6 – players in the draw are undefeated in US Open first round matches: Venus Williams (19-0), Serena Williams (17-0), Patty Schnyder (14-0), Agnieszka Radwanska (12-0), Maria Sharapova (11-0) and Victoria Azarenka (10-0).
7 – former US Open champions in the draw: Sloane Stephens (2017), Angelique Kerber (2016), Svetlana Kuznetsova (2004), Maria Sharapova (2006), Samantha Stosur (2011), Serena Williams (1999, 2002, 2008, 2012-14) and Venus Williams (2000, 2001).
17 – In the Open Era, the reigning Wimbledon champion has gone on to win the US Open 17 times. Kerber would be the first player since Serena in 2012 to pull off that feat.
22 – There have been 22 successful women’s singles title defences at the US Open. Sloane Stephens will try to make that figure 23.
24 – Serena Williams is chasing an all-time record 24th Grand Slam title which would equal Margaret Court’s tally.
44 – Simona Halep will maintain her position as world No. 1 irrespective of her US Open result. It will take her total tally to 44 weeks at the summit, including this next fortnight.
80 – Venus Williams is appearing in her Open Era record 80th Grand Slam main draw.