World No.8 Kiki Bertens suffered a string of heartbreaking three-set losses during her Australian swing, but the 27-year-old turned her disappointment into motivation to storm her way through the draw at the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy to take home her first title of 2019.
Coming off a sparkling 2018 season, which saw her finish the season in the Top 10 for the first time in her career while transforming from a clay-court specialist to an all-court threat, Bertens was stymied by three tough three-set losses in January. The first came to Donna Vekic in the Round of 16 in Brisbane, in which Bertens had match points only to lose 7-6, 1-6, 7-5. Then came a loss to Ashleigh Barty in the semifinals of Sydney, also 7-5 in the third. But most disappointing was her second-round exit from the Australian Open at the hands of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.
After regrouping with her coach Raemon Sluiter, Bertens avenged two of those three losses in St. Petersburg, defeating Pavlyuchenkova in the Round of 16 and then Vekic in Sunday's final, winning 7-6(2), 6-4. Sandwiched between those two victories was a hard-fought 7-6(5), 6-2 win over No.10 Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals.
"They were really tough losses," Bertens told WTA Insider by phone after the win. "When we sat down after Australia, we talked about the trip. Of course, it was not a great trip. I wanted to do better of course, but the losses I had were really close. So going into this week and playing against Nastia again, and then Donna, it was just giving myself another opportunity to beat them and I took it."
The scorelines may look straight-forward - Bertens lost just one set all week - but the Dutchwoman had to dig deep and trust in the process to seal her eighth career title. The No.2 seed found herself up against it quickly in the final, but found a way to rally to back from 2-5 down in the first set to edge a surging Vekic.
"It was really tough," Bertens said. "I think Donna started the match really well and I didn't play really well myself.
"Then I had a chat with Raemon and he said ok, I see that you're not hitting the ball well so try and find your rhythm and go for your shots. That's also what I said to myself, maybe it will come, maybe it will come in the second set, but just try to go for it. And then I was able to turn the first set around."
More from Bertens after her big win below:
WTA Insider: You had triple-matchpoint and Donna hit a ball you thought was out on your first match point and you celebrated like you won the match. The ball ended up being. How did you recover from that to close it out?
Bertens: It was really tough because I really thought it was out and I felt all the emotions, and then the stress after the ball was in. Then I had to refocus. I was still ok I would say, but after the second match point I thought about Brisbane, where I lost the match against her when I had the match points. So on the fourth match point I was a little bit lucky with the net ball, but at the end I had it.
WTA Insider: Speaking of that Brisbane match against Donna, this was a bit of a revenge tournament for you. You lost to her 7-5 in the third set in Brisbane and you lost to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in three sets in the second round of the Australian Open. You beat them both here.
Bertens: It was for sure. They were really tough losses. When we sat down after Australia, we talked about the trip. Of course, it was not a great trip. I wanted to do better of course, but the losses I had were really close. So going into this week and playing against Nastia again, and then Donna, it was just giving myself another opportunity to beat them and I took it.
WTA Insider: How big was that win over Nastia in the second round. You didn't lose a set for the rest of the week and followed it up with another good win over Aryna Sabalenka. It must have really boosted your confidence.
Bertens: It was a little bit of a rematch from Melbourne, where she didn't play well in the first set and then I had chances in the beginning of the second set and I didn't take it and she started to play better and swing. In Melbourne she also did that in the third set.
This time I thought this isn't going to happen. You go for your shots, play aggressive, and I think that's what I did really well this tournament, to play more aggressive than I played in Australia.
WTA Insider: After the disappointment of Australia, what was your mindset coming into this week?
Bertens: To be honest, we had a good practice week at home and we discussed it. We're going to try and play a little bit more aggressive and treat this as a bonus week. Of course I always try to win, but try to put a little more effort in my strokes and play a little bit more aggressive, and it worked well. So maybe I'll just stick with that.
WTA Insider: Speaking of being more aggressive, your serve has been a big weapon for you this year. When we spoke earlier this year in Brisbane, you said you were trying to change your mindset on that shot and really go for it. How are you feeling about that stroke so far?
Bertens: I think it's definitely improved for sure. I'm hitting a lot of aces and winner from the first serve, but still sometimes the percentage can be a little bit more up. I think in this tournament I really served well in the first match and then after that it dropped a little bit.
But still, when my first serve is in I'm really aggressive with that. It's a little bit more speed there, a little bit more I can hit the corners easier. It makes it a little bit easier to win matches for sure.
WTA Insider: After the year you had in 2018, you've now won a title in the first quarter of a season for the first time in your career. How big is that for you?
Bertens: I think it gives me a lot of confidence that I'm still in the right way. I've never had a good start of the year. Last year my first title came in Charleston, so I knew coming into this year I didn't have so many points to defend until then, so I could just play relaxed and just go for every tournament. That's what I did and I'm really happy with this title so early in the season.
WTA Insider: You won your first hardcourt tournament last year in Cincinnati and now you've picked up your third. How different do you feel on hardcourts now?
Bertens: I feel definitely more relaxed on the hardcourts now. I don't feel rushed at all. Like the last two years I played here I didn't feel relaxed at all. The hardcourt is really slow but still then you have to step into the ball and play aggressive and I was really struggling with that. This year was a big turnaround with that and I'm really pleased with how I played all the week.
WTA Insider: What are the adjustments you've made to feel less rushed on hardcourts?
Bertens: I think just moving-wise. I'm moving a lot better than a few years ago, so I can stay more in the rally, try and get a little bit more balls back, and I'm better at attacking the ball myself. So when I get the opportunity I can do that as well and I think I've found a better balance now.