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’.”
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