Serving at 4-3, 15-30 in the second set of the Madrid Open final against Simona Halep, Kiki Bertens hit an overhead that would, in tennis fans’ parlance, be called a ‘Djokosmash’. Named after Novak Djokovic because of his occasional tendency to make a mess of simple overheads, the Djokosmash refers to any badly-timed smash that loses you a point from a seemingly impregnable position.
Saying that the Bertens overhead was badly timed would be a gross understatement. The shot was probably 90 percent frame and 10 percent string, and it seemed destined to land about 10 feet beyond the baseline. Except that it didn’t land at all; in sprinting from one end of the court to another, Halep had somehow found herself bang in the middle of the shot’s trajectory.
The Romanian desperately tried to swerve away from the ball, but couldn’t stop it from hitting her right leg. And because the ball touched her before bouncing, the score read 30-30 instead of 15-40, depriving her of two break-back points.
Bertens would go on to hold for 5-3, and ultimately serve out the set for a 6-4, 6-4 win. Her first ever Premier Mandatory trophy, easily the biggest title of her career so far, was clinched in the most assured, nerveless fashion imaginable. It was more than a little surprising how easy she made it look towards the end.
As Halep walked slump-shouldered towards the net for the handshake, no doubt ruing the missed chance to regain the World No 1 ranking, you had to cast your mind back to that strange turn of events at 4-3. What if she had won that point, and broken back?
Hypothetical situations are always divisive, but in this case, it’s hard to imagine the result being any different even if Halep hadn’t been in the wrong place at the wrong time on that point. It was just that kind of day for her; nothing seemed likely to work in her favour. And it was just that kind of day for Bertens; everything seemed to go her way.
But that wasn’t a pure accident, or a stroke of fortune. This may sound clichéd, but the Dutchwoman has made her own luck over the last 12 months. She has quietly but firmly established herself in the top 10 through a series of well-planned moves, and her Madrid title is a just reward for her efforts.
It’s not just that Bertens has been plugging away in the middle tier, waiting to take advantage when the top players stumble. She has also been proactive about her game, working hard on the aspects she needs to improve in order to transform herself into an elite player.
At first glance, nothing about Bertens’ game strikes you as extraordinary. She has good power on her serve and forehand and great movement for a player who’s six feet tall, but there are a lot of players in the top 100 who are similarly quick and powerful.
It’s only when you’ve watched an entire match of hers that you start appreciating the little things she does better than most; Bertens is an expert at maximising her strengths and hiding her weaknesses, turning a meat-and-potatoes game into an imposing one.
The Dutchwoman is an attacking player, and most of her attacking plays flow from her serve and forehand. But more importantly, she makes sure that she nails her offence when she needs to. You don’t often see her missing a sitter forehand putaway; her one-two punch is one of the best in the world.
Where she has improved over the last year is moving forward when she gets a chance, and taking shots out of the air. While she did hit a Djokosmash at 4-3, she also hit more than her fair share of well-struck smashes and volleys that left Halep lunging in vain. Bertens may still lack a little in technique up at the net, but she certainly doesn’t lack for conviction.
Bertens has also added more variety to her defence, and is not afraid of throwing in the odd slice when pushed wide. And while her two-handed backhand is not the smoothest of shots, it more than holds its own when put under attack. In any case, her foot-speed is good enough to ensure that she doesn’t hit any more backhands than she absolutely needs to.
Bertens has always been considered something of a claycourt specialist, but that perception changed in a big way in the second half of 2018. Her improved net game and increased conviction while attacking enabled her to finish points more effectively on quicker surfaces, and that showed in her results.
After reaching the Wimbledon quarter-finals (defeating Venus Williams along the way) last year, Bertens won her first Premier 5 title at Cincinnati. And it wasn’t any weak-draw title either; her lineup of victims at that tournament included Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina, Petra Kvitova, and who else but Halep herself in the final.
Another good showing at the WTA Finals, where she notched up wins over Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka before bowing out in a hard-fought semi-final to eventual champion Svitolina, confirmed what everyone had been thinking: Bertens was now a legitimate all-surface threat. She then added another Premier-level title in 2019, on the hard courts of St Petersburg, and it was hard to shake off the feeling that she was the most improved player on tour.
That feeling is now practically a fact. While some of Bertens’ recent successes have been built on dogged consistency and others on misfiring opponents, her Madrid run from start to finish was a proper showcase of her commanding skills. Bertens didn’t drop a set all tournament despite facing as many as four Slam winners; in fact, she didn’t even drop more than five games in any set.
The 27-year-old played like a champion throughout the week, and deservingly ended it as one too. She was simply better than every opponent she faced, and by a fair distance. There can be no arguing about her place in the top echelon of women’s tennis any more.
We are about half-way through the clay season, and Bertens would certainly be targeting more success on the dirt in the next few weeks. And if she wins any more points along the way through lucky Djokosmashes that hit her opponents, then so be it.
She has made her own luck, after all.
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Updated Date: May 12, 2019 09:43:22 IST