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.
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