French Open 2019: Kiki Bertens has honed her claycourt skill sets to get to cusp of first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros

Dutch ace Kiki Bertens has been all over the news lately, particularly for her prowess on clay. She won the title in Madrid and made the semi-finals at Stuttgart, with even her losses in prior tournaments coming in very close, tight margins and tough fights.

It is not without reason that Bertens is widely regarded as a clay court specialist; of her eleven WTA singles finals, eight have been on clay and she has lost only twice.

Bertens always showed promise on the surface — on the ITF circuit, she made a total of 11 finals of which eight were on clay, with only three losses.

Seven years after being seeded No 1 in qualifying at the French Open, Kiki Bertens returns as the tournament's sixth seed in the main draw this time around. With victories over a litany of former No 1s under her belt and the conviction of both form and talent, there is no reason to believe the clay-courter cannot go all the way.

 French Open 2019: Kiki Bertens has honed her claycourt skill sets to get to cusp of first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros

Seven years on from her first title, fighting through tournaments unseeded and as a qualifier, Kiki Bertens is on the cusp of a Grand Slam win in French Open. Oscar Del Pozo/AFP

It was around this time last year that Bertens, then relatively unknown, became known to the average tennis watcher. But for those watching her for some time, Bertens, who had mixed to middling successes around 2012, really hit the big time in 2016 with the clay courts of Bavaria providing the base for her rise.

Bertens, then ranked 89th on the tour, had entered the Nuremberg Cup as a qualifier. She eventually toppled the top seed, Italian Roberta Vinci, in the second round of the tournament before making short work of German Julia Goerges. Bertens converted 11 of her 17 break points in the final against clay court specialist Maria Duque Marino to clinch her first title since 2012. Perhaps that tournament was a harbinger of things to come for then 24-year-old Bertens.

Indeed, Bertens had already shown promise on the red dirt only a short time before Nuremberg, defeating clay-court Grand Slam winners Kristina Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia in the singles on that surface at the Fed Cup but it was her title in Germany that truly stamped her return on clay.

Bertens did not just take top honours in the singles but also won the doubles title at Nuremberg that year. Unlike so many other players who are not always able to carry their form into bigger tournaments, Kiki Bertens went into the 2016 French Open unseeded and defeated former World No 1 and third seed Angelique Kerber in three sets. She subsequently defeated, in that order, Camila Giorgi, Daria Kasatkina, Madison Keys and Timea Bacsinszky (then 8th seed at the tournament), to make the semi-finals, where an injury hampered her gameplay against eventual runner-up Serena Williams.

Bertens managed to reach 21 in the WTA rankings that year, even making the third round at Wimbledon before losing to Simona Halep.

She continued her form into the 2017 season, and although her hard-court performances were nothing to write home about, the Dutchwoman repeatedly proved her significant level of comfort on the clay. She reached the third round in the Volvo Open of that year, losing to semi-finalist Mirjana Lucic-Baroni and the quarter-finals of the Copa Solsanitas — where she tumbled to the eventual title winner Roberta Vinci. But for Bertens, her form only got better as her 2017 calendar progressed, making it to the quarter-finals of the Madrid Open, over the experience of Ekaterina Makarova and Timea Bacsinszky. Although she went out in the last-eight, Bertens did not drop a single set en route to her quarter-final finish.

In Italy right after, Bertens bettered her result, this time progressing with a strong showing to the semi-finals, where she was outclassed by Simona Halep. Despite this, Bertens was able to finish the clay court season with a successful title defence at Nuremberg, and a title win in Gstaad.

2018 was, perhaps, Bertens' biggest season yet. It marked several firsts for the Dutchwoman and several milestones that all came on clay, and cemented the clay-court specialist title she built for herself beginning in 2016.

At the Volvo Car Open at Charleston last year, Bertens showed both skill and a nerve that few players are able to muster. Having progressed to the semi-finals of the tournament without dropping a set, Bertens saw a big contest in the form of American Madison Keys, to whom she was down a match point in the third set. The Dutch player would still go on to win that match, eventually beating the experienced fifth seed Julia Goerges in a one-sided, 6-2, 6-1 match.

Bertens was on song at the 2018 Madrid Open, sending opponents tumbling almost like dominoes. Unseeded at the tournament, she nevertheless toppled 15th seed Anastasija Sevastova, before making short work of former top-ranked player Caroline Wozniacki, who was then No 2 and hoping to wrest the title away from Simona Halep. Bertens dispatched Wozniacki 6-2, 6-2, before outclassing two-time French Open winner Maria Sharapova.

Already having made quite the habit of defeating seeded players and clay specialists, Bertens then ousted seventh seed Caroline Garcia from the tournament, putting up a fierce finals battle before her eventual loss to Petra Kvitova.

In 2017, Bertens had five WTA titles. By the end of 2018, she had eight.

If 2018 was to be any indication, 2019 was going to be a blockbuster for Kiki Bertens. But Bertens has more than proved herself this year. She started off the year strong, with a title at St Petersburg. Beginning her clay-court jaunt strong, the 27-year-old hit the semi-finals at Stuttgart, where she lost to a resurgent Petra Kvitova in what would eventually be a hard-fought three-set battle. But never one to dwell, Bertens got her revenge against Kvitova at the quarter-finals in Madrid in a one-sided 6-2, 6-3 battle, before outclassing reigning French Open champion Simona Halep in straight sets in the final to win her first Premier Mandatory title.

En route to the title in Madrid, Bertens defeated four Grand Slam winning players — Kvitova, Halep, Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens — all without dropping a single set all tournament, making her also the first player to achieve that feat. Interestingly, two of the Grand Slam winners she defeated — Ostapenko and Halep — were the 2017 and 2018 champions at Roland Garros.

Halep and Kvitova are believed to be the significant frontrunners for the title in Roland Garros and Bertens has made short work of each of 2019's in-form players to be counted as one of the favourites herself.

Italy saw Bertens faced with a tough battle and upset by British No 1 Johanna Konta in the semi-finals, but her deep finishes at tournaments, titles aside, have already given us a significant taste of just what Kiki Bertens can be like on her favourite surface. Having already had solid finishes at Roland Garros in years prior, this year, she goes onto the Terre battue with two titles under her belt, and the motivation of having become the highest-ranked Dutch tennis player in history.

Motivation is not something Kiki Bertens has struggled with. Seven years on from her first title, fighting through tournaments unseeded and as a qualifier, the Dutch ace is now a World No 4, on the cusp of Grand Slam glories. With her ability to spin the ball and push opponents way behind the baseline, Bertens' skill-set — one she has honed to near-perfection, is just itching to take her all the way on court Suzanne Lenglen — and in a few weeks' time, that could well become reality.

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Updated Date: May 23, 2019 10:31:27 IST