MADRID, Spain - Kiki Bertens was always talented. She just wasn't always ambitious. In her own words, she's 'come a long way'.
The 2019 Mutua Madrid Open champion is set to make history on Monday, rising to a career-high No.4 to become the highest-ranked Dutchwoman ever after a dominant run to the biggest title of her career. En route to her second title of the season and fifth in the last 13 months, the 27-year-old defeated four major champions in Madrid, including reigning Roland Garros champion Simona Halep, 6-4, 6-4 in the final, all without losing a set.
Always content to fly below the radar, Bertens was on the brink of retirement at the end of the 2017 season. Unhappy with her tennis and with life on the tour, Bertens spent the off-season taking stock on what she wanted out of her career. She returned with a renewed sense of purpose, passion, and perspective, and the result has been a meteoric rise through the rankings and transformation into an all-court threat. After a breakout 2018 season, which saw her win the biggest title of her career in Cincinnati - defeating four Top 10 players - Bertens qualified for her first WTA Finals and has continued to build on her success in 2019.
With the Madrid title, Bertens joins Petra Kvitova as the only two players on tour who have won multiple titles this season, with both women winning a title on both hardcourt and clay. Now she readies for the requisite attention as the tour makes its way to Paris, undoubtedly one of the short-list favorites for the title at Roland Garros.
Bertens joined the WTA Insider Podcast after her Madrid win to reflect on her blistering week in the Spanish capital, the lessons she's learned as she's ascended into the WTA Elite, and how she hopes to cope with the spotlight now that she's become one to beat.
Listen to the full interview with Bertens and her coach Raemon Sluiter on the WTA Insider Podcast below:
WTA Insider: By now you know all the statistics. On Monday you'll be ranked a career-high No.4, making history for the Netherlands as the highest-ranked Dutchwoman ever. You won your biggest title here in Madrid, you didn't lose a set, the first woman to win the title without dropping a set. You were a bulldozer this week.
Bertens: Those all sound pretty good to me, I would say (laughing). I'm just really happy with how this week went. I played some really good tennis, really solid, winning for the first time such a big event and then being No.4 in the world on Monday it's just been an amazing week.
WTA Insider: What do you take the most pride in?
Bertens: I think I'm just really happy that I was able to play a really good week again here in Madrid. Of course there was some pressure going into this week because I made the finals last year, so if you lose early you drop a lot of points and then it's tough again to reach your highest ranking, which is what we were going for.
So I'm just really proud of myself that I was just pretty calm the whole week. That I could just go on court, try to give my best, try to find solutions to win the match and just be pretty solid. As a result of that, of course, it's great to win this title and to be No.4.
WTA Insider: It was not an easy draw here for you. You beat four major champions in Ostapenko, Kvitova, Stephens, and Halep. Where did that sense of calm come from?
Bertens: I think I grew a lot over the last 52 weeks, I would say. I know that stress is not helping you, but that's easier said than done, of course. So I'm just really happy that I could manage it this week, just to go out there every day again, just try to play my best. I knew sometimes it was not my best, but I was still pretty calm and finding my solutions and then, the next day again. So I was just every day putting in the work helps a lot. That's where I'm proud of.
WTA Insider: At the beginning of the season you spoke about goals. You said, why not? Earlier in your career, you seemed to have a ceiling in your mind about how much you could do in your career. Now it seems you don't have that ceiling. It's not easy to change your mindset like that.
Bertens: It is tough, because before we never really set goals. The year before I was just hoping that I could finish the year still playing tennis, still be happy on the tennis court. So I came a long way, I would say. But right now I feel good.
We set goals a little bit more. I know going into every tournament I have to go for the win. Of course it doesn't happen every week, but I know that I can do it and that I've changed a lot.
I think one year ago and even before that, I could never go into this kind of an event and think about winning it. Of course the belief is not like there all the time, like, OK I'm gonna win this, but I'm just trying to go for it and trying to put all my energy in there. Sometimes it works.
I just take it one day at a time and just go at it again tomorrow and try to improve again.
WTA Insider: Go back five years ago. Back then, what did you consider a good season?
Bertens: I think just winning one title or doing pretty good in a Slam, like going to the second or third round, it was already ok. I won a few points, stayed in the top 70, so it was all OK. Just pretty solid.
Now I'm even more solid. I changed a lot. I'm working harder for it. I know what it takes to get to the Top 10. I grew up, I would say.
WTA Insider: You say you've changed a lot. How do you think being a tennis player has changed you as a person?
Bertens: I think the attention, it changes you a little bit. I tried to stay the same, but sometimes it's tough, like when people recognize you, or a lot of people come to you and are coming too close. Then sometimes I'm like OK. I'm still Kiki. I'm just trying to do my thing and just leave me alone. So being able to manage that.
Before I was really thinking about and reading what everyone was writing about me. I wanted to do well for everyone, even more than for myself. I think that's the biggest change, that right now I am more doing it for myself. There are always people who are going to like me, who are not going to like me, and I'm all fine with it.
WTA Insider: Does any of your success surprise you? Have your expectations for yourself caught up with your results? Last year it seemed the results were ahead of where you thought you were. A year on, is it closer?
Bertens: I think it's closer, yeah for sure. I now feel more ready. I feel like I belong where I am, even if it sounds weird because it's No.4 in the world, but I know I did a lot of good things over the last year.
Last year I felt sometimes still a little bit like okay, maybe people want to play me. That if they have to play a seeded player, then we pick Kiki (laughs). But right now I'm feeling better. I'm more consistent, I feel more relaxed on the court. Of course there's still gonna be some stress but I'm just more relaxed.
WTA Insider: You'll be the highest-ranked Dutchwoman ever on Monday and with the Madrid title, you've won the biggest WTA title for any woman from the Netherlands in the Open Era. Can you get your head around the fact that you might be the best women's tennis player the country has ever produced?
Bertens: No, it's really weird (laughs). I don't know how everyone is gonna react or if it's going to be really big or not, I have no idea. I hope not (laughs).
But no, of course it's really special and in one way I know that it's really special that I've done this. But yes, still I'm just doing my thing and trying to improve every day and hopefully I can still improve a little bit more.
WTA Insider: You're not doing a good job of staying out of the spotlight and keeping expectations low. How do you plan to manage the situation over the next four weeks?
Bertens: Well I'll take these expectations. I think it's a good thing to have. And I'm just trying to do my best again. I'll try to enjoy it as much as possible, even if maybe the pressure is gonna grow a little bit.
I don't know how I'm going to feel when I arrive in Paris, if I feel the pressure yes or no. But I'll try just to do the same as what I did this week and hopefully it's gonna be a few more fun weeks on the clay.