In a WTA season of transformations, breakthroughs and surprises, Kiki Bertens checked every box and walks away from Singapore knowing she has plenty to be proud of.
The first Dutch woman to feature in the WTA Finals singles event since Brenda Schultz-McCarthy in 1997, Bertens made her top-10 debut earlier this month and finishes her year in a far different position to where she was 12 months ago – not just in the rankings, but more importantly in terms of headspace.
Last year, after losing the doubles final in Singapore with partner Johanna Larsson, Bertens contemplated retiring from the sport as she admittedly felt she was failing to find the joy in the sport. Her coach Raemon Sluiter suggested she think long and hard during her subsequent vacation in Bali on whether she believed she should continue playing, or if she was ready to walk away from tennis with no regrets.
Bertens, ranked 31 at the time, returned from her break with a sheet of paper that included a short list of things she needed to change in order to keep going. Sluiter was encouraged by the fact his charge was being proactive about her situation and decided to continue their working relationship, after previously considering parting ways with Bertens.
What followed was a remarkable tale of transformation that unfolded throughout the 2018 season and ended with Bertens winning the Most Improved Player of the Year award, before falling in three close sets to Elina Svitolina in the semis of the WTA Finals.
A formerly self-proclaimed clay specialist, Bertens, who won the Premier title in Charleston in April on green clay, made a stunning run to her first Premier 5 title on the hard courts of Cincinnati in August. She added a second hard-court trophy to her cabinet later in Seoul. On grass, she reached the quarter-finals of Wimbledon. She also reached finals on clay in Madrid and Gstaad.
Translating her success to all surfaces wasn’t the only standout outcome of Bertens’ efforts this year. The 26-year-old posted a tour-leading 12 top-10 victories throughout 2018 – a glaring sign that she developed further belief in her abilities against the very best.
“It’s been an incredible season. I can be really proud of myself,” said Bertens following her tight defeat to Svitolina in the Singapore semis.
“The only goal we set in the beginning of this year was just try to have more fun, and of course winning is more fun, so that makes it easier.
“But I think already like the first half-year it was great. I felt so much better. I felt so much better on court. Then my season was already, like, a good season. But especially now, like, winning three titles, being here in Singapore, being in top-10 of the world, it’s just all amazing, yeah.”
For Sluiter, the big achievement hasn’t necessarily been the results, but the fact that Bertens was willing to put in the work. In the past, he says she used to get easily derailed by one defeat, which would push her to stop training for several days, and sway her away from healthy eating habits
“It sounds maybe strange but the most fulfilling is the way she’s worked this year. Of course there’s still stuff to work on but the way she took the sport as a way of life is remarkable and that’s been a privilege to watch and an outcome of that are great results but to me, it’s even more about that,” Sluiter told Sport360.
Bertens credits minor adjustments to her life on tour for her progress this year and her overall positive feelings towards her profession.
“I think it’s just some small things. I’m just trying to not think about tennis too much. Like off-court, just doing some more fun stuff. Just walk around in the city. Just go for a coffee and do some yoga, as well,” she explains.
The unique format of the WTA Finals isn’t just about its elite top-eight field, it’s also about the challenge of the round robin stage, and how a defeat doesn’t spell the end of a player’s journey.
“I would say this tournament it’s almost like a few tournaments in one. Because you have the chance to lose a match and then two days later you play again which is sometimes possible when you’re in the semi-finals or finals of a tournament and then you play next week. It’s a very good format to test acceptance because you get new chances and see how many blows you can take and be back ready to fight. I knew already from Kiki that she can do that. Just still a little bit too hard on herself sometimes,” says Sluiter.
For my three English speaking fans: You win some, you lose some. Great fight from @kikibertens, but @SloaneStephens showed why she is a champion. We live to fight another day. Now i’m going to close the drawer with worst sport clichés. Thanks for the support. #WTAFinals #teamkiki
— Raemon Sluiter (@raemonsluiter) October 24, 2018
The ninth-ranked Bertens, who told Dutch press on Sunday that she is adding physio, hitting partner and coach Elise Tamaela (worked with Aleksandra Krunic this season) to her team in 2019, knows that next season will come with its own set of pressures, but she’s hopeful she can handle it in a positive manner.
Sluiter believes it’s better to take the pressure head on, rather than avoid it.
“The pressure will come. It’s utopia to think that pressure isn’t going to come. How are you going to deal with it, or how are you going to try to not let the pressure come? The pressure is going to come and there’s nothing wrong with that, you deal with it as good as possible and I think that’s what she’s done already this year,” he says.
“Especially the end of the year. It will probably feel good in a few days but she’ll still feel some bruises from the fact that she didn’t get to Singapore herself (she qualified only after world No. 1 Simona Halep pulled out with a back injury).
“Like I said, she’s really hard on herself and she can really stick to those things instead of the good things, so that’s going to be the challenge.
“And for me, attitude is going to be key there and that of course is more difficult when you get tired like here, when you are under pressure. But if you see the really, really good ones, the attitude always – Rafa [Nadal] of course is a prime example. And I think it’s a very good challenge to have, it will sometimes hurt for her and it will be tough for her but we have to approach it as a very, very nice challenge.”
Although she loves flying under the radar, rather than soak up the limelight, Bertens will have to accept that more eyes will be glued on her moving forward. WTA legend Chris Evert was asked if she believed Bertens could win a Grand Slam.
“Absolutely,” replied Evert, an 18-time major champion.
“After watching her this year, absolutely she could win a Grand Slam. Absolutely. Two years ago Kiki was inconsistent and not moving as well. She’s fitter now than she’s ever been. She’s hitting some big shots with consistency. It’s the attitude. I just see her feeling that she belongs in the top three or four in the world. She belongs here. So she’s gaining more and more confidence. It’s really that belief that has really propelled her and is going to propel her. It’s all up here (pointing to her head).”
Asked if he thinks Bertens feels like she belongs among the world’s top10, Sluiter said: “Yes, for sure, especially with the wins she had over top-10 players and the ranking doesn’t lie.
“I think if you ask her she’d say she feels like a top-20 or top-15 player and I think I can live with that. Because if we look at the field in Zhuhai, it’s crazy packed. If I would be a tennis fanatic – well I am, but I need my holiday and Zhuhai is quite far from the Netherlands – but it’s a great event.
“There are so many good players, everybody is capable of winning the tournament and I would go one step further that everybody is capable of winning this tournament if they are on a roll. If Julia Goerges is on a roll, if Daria [Kasatkina] is on a roll, if Aryna [Sabalenka], [Garbine] Muguruza, [Caroline] Garcia… it’s a really exciting place at the moment on the WTA tour.
“So I can live with the fact if she goes like top-20, because I think it is more or less a top-20, but then again I’m the coach and I’d say, ‘Hey, you’re No. 9 for a reason’.”
Stephens is looking to win her biggest title since lifting the 2017 US Open while Svitolina is bidding to win the biggest trophy of her career, following a sub-par second half of the season.
The fifth-seeded Stephens came back from 0-6, 0-2 down against Karolina Pliskova in Saturday’s semi-final to defeat the Czech 0-6, 6-4, 6-1 and become the first American woman not named Williams to reach the final of the WTA Finals since 2001.
Stephens, who won all three of her group stage matches, had an alarming start against Pliskova, and admits she was trying to do anything to avoid complete humiliation on the court.
“I was thinking, ‘S***. I made it all the way to the semi-final, and I’m going to lose? Oh, no. It’s, like, this is so embarrassing’. Yeah, that was it, basically. I was, like, ‘I’m going to lose 6-0, 6-0’. It’s like I’m trying so hard. Nothing’s working. But then I won one game. Then you know the rest,” explained Stephens.
“You never know what can happen. Obviously there’s been situations where I’ve been down like 5-2, 4-1, you come back, whatever. But in this situation on this stage, like the semi-final, trying to make the finals, like, my first year-end that I have ever played, there was a lot on the line. I think I just, from the very first match here, I gave it my absolute all, like even the battles to three sets, whatever, I was just going out there and trying to play my butt off.
“That’s what I did today. I didn’t really think about it too much. Yeah, I was bummed that I wasn’t playing well at the beginning, but once I kind of got going, I felt obviously a lot better.”
Stephens had spoken earlier in the week about how she felt that herself, and her fellow bottom four seeds, came to Singapore with a purpose and looking to prove their naysayers wrong. Her latest success, on her WTA Finals debut nonetheless is definitely an effective way of achieving that.
“I think my biggest thing was obviously after the US 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,” said Stephens.
“I think I did that throughout the year. Obviously winning Miami, finals of another Grand Slam, finals in Montreal, quarters of the US Open defending a title. Could I have done better? Yeah. Could I have done better in smaller tournaments? Could I have done some things differently, schedule changes, whatever? Yeah, I could have.
“But I think off of not playing tennis for 11 months and having surgery and having to reset my whole life and career and kind of figure out what was really important to me tennis-wise, I think that this year I have done extremely well. I don’t think anyone can say that I had a bad season.”
The 25-year-old American takes a 2-1 head-to-head record lead over Svitolina into their final on Sunday. Svitolina has an impressive 12-2 win-loss record in finals though and has won her last eight title deciders. By virtue of reaching the final, Svitolina will receive the biggest paycheck of her career, scooping $1.2m.
The Ukrainian, who overcame Kiki Bertens 7-5, 6-7(5), 6-4 in a 2hr 38min semi-final on Saturday also explained how the constant critique of her body and results in the second half of the season has been a motivating factor for her to excel in Singapore this week.
“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. And here I am in the final, so it’s something that’s really matters with me and really special moment for me, and I think definitely for the future it’s something that I can be proud of,” added Svitolina.
Sloane Stephens continues to make a statement on her WTA Finals debut as she wrapped up her round robin matches with a clean 3-0 record, defeating top seed Angelique Kerber on Friday to advance to the semis as the winner of her group.
Stephens staved off a Kerber comeback in the second set to topple the German Wimbledon champion 6-3, 6-3 in 1hr 40min.
The No. 5 seed faces Karolina Pliskova in Saturday’s semi-finals, while Kiki Bertens, who beat Naomi Osaka via retirement earlier in the day, faces Elina Svitolina.
Here are four things to know ahead of Saturday’s showdowns.
GOOD WEEK FOR THE UNDERDOGS
In a field of eight, it is the bottom four seeds who ended up advancing to the semi-finals here in Singapore.
Stephens and Svitolina both went 3-0 in the group stage while Bertens and Pliskova produced some impressive tennis to post 2-1 records.
“I think obviously the girls that were the bottom four, so me, Svitolina, Bertens, and Pliskova, I think we have all had great seasons and had some really great results. I think that obviously the top four have, too, but I think at the end, like when we were all battling towards the end of the year, everyone pretty much counted us out, because they were, like, ‘Oh, they are barely going to qualify or barely get in’. I think that everyone came here with not nothing to lose but ready to kind of kick ass,” said Stephens.
“I think we have all played, the four of us in our groups, I think we have all played really well, like even though when I played Kiki, that was probably the best match I played in the group. So, yeah, I think it’s great for us, great for the younger girls just to be able to prove ourselves and even get this far and get here. Yeah, it’s kind of cool.”
This is the first time since 2003, when the round robin format was re-introduced, that none of the top four seeds have advanced to the final four at the WTA Finals.
ACE QUEEN ON TARGET
Pliskova is seven aces away from hitting the 400-mark for the season. It would be the fifth year in a row that Pliskova fires 400 or more aces. The Czech is also bidding for a tour-leading 50th victory of the season when she takes on Stephens on Saturday. It would be the third time in her career to tally up 50 wins in a season, after posting 53 victories in 2015 and 2017.
Two WTA Finals debutantes have made it to the semis this week – Stephens and Bertens. It’s the first time this has happened since Ana Ivanovic and Anna Chakvetadze made the final four in 2007. Stephens is the first time a debutante to win all her group matches since Garbine Muguruza achieved that feat in 2015.
KIKI THE GIANT-SLAYER
Bertens has now posted 12 top-10 victories this season (has lost six), the most of anyone on tour in 2018.
“I think it’s just like proof to myself that I can beat anyone. I think that’s a really nice feeling. I think before I really had like, oh, those are great players, and I can never beat them. Now I’m still thinking those are great players but I have beaten them before, so I can do it, so hopefully I can do it again today. So I think it helped me a lot with the confidence,” said the Dutchwoman of her impressive record.