The Dutch player defeated world No.3 Simona Halep to lift her maiden Premier Mandatory trophy, avenging last year’s final defeat, and denying her opponent the chance to re-take the top spot in the WTA Rankings.
I was lost for words. Because she was doing all the right things. Raemon Sluiter, Kiki Bertens's coach, on the bright sides of feeling useless during time-outs.
- Bertens (Ned, 7) d. S. Halep (Rom, 3) 6-4 6-4
Given the unpredictably well-balanced time that the WTA Tour is experiencing at the moment, it’s quite normal, even expected, to be surprised by new champions having their names engraved in the winners lists of the most important tournaments. However, Kiki Bertens’s maiden Premier Mandatory victory in Madrid wasn’t a full-out surprise as much as a sort of confirmation: the Dutch, after all, arrived at the Caja Magica with a No.7 ranking, had reached the final last year, losing in nail-biter against Petra Kvitova, and had proven herself one of the most consistent performers on tour, reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, winning a Premier 5 in Cincinnati, and conquering two more tournaments after that – moreover, no woman has won as many clay matches as Bertens since 2016, as she reached a hefty total of 68 with Saturday’s win.
However, the step that goes from zero to one is always harder than those from one to every other number, so there could be a reasonable doubt regarding her mental readiness for the final, especially considered who stood on the other side of the net. Simona Halep was bidding for a third Madrid crown, after those of 2016 and 2017, with one more final lost in 2014, and, most importantly, was one match away from re-claiming the top spot of the WTA Rankings for herself, surpassing Naomi Osaka.
Despite being just a couple of months older than her opponent, the Rumanian is much more experienced on the biggest stages, having been a top ten player for six seasons, whereas Bertens only started reaching those heights last year. Therefore, Halep was a slight favourite to win, despite their last meeting going in Kiki’s favour, in the already mentioned Cincinnati final of last August, when Bertens even saved a match point to win in three sets – Halep was in front in their career head-to-head anyway, 3-2.
On the other hand, both Petra Kvitova and WTA Insider described them as the two best female players on clay – Kvitova could see for herself, as Bertens beat her handily in the quarter-finals – and their style of play lends itself to the description: both are incredibly consistent with their groundstrokes, movement and tactics, and both like to dictate with their spinny forehands, although Halep is a little faster and Bertens is a much better server (a relevant factor with Madrid’s altitude) and hits her backhand flatter.
The final started a little after 6 pm in a packed Manolo Santana. It wasn’t a beautiful match, to be honest, and it wasn’t supposed to be: both players are far too effective at disrupting the other’s play, particularly with their deep returns, to produce a traditionally entertaining match, but true clay fans will know that the surface entails a different kind of beauty, predicated more on psycho-physical battles than on clean winners, so there was much to contemplate and stand in awe of anyway.
Whatever doubt there could be about Bertens’s mental readiness was quickly dispelled, anyway, as she played in a superbly poised manner from the get go, trying not to give any rhythm to Halep by varying spins and speeds, immediately using slices and drop shots – although her coach Raemon Sluiter remarked after the match that she should have used it more, but she seemed fine regardless – daring the Rumanian to over-hit, since both players base their style on they belief that they could trade blows on end without ever missing.
However, as already said, the initial irony was that their returning prowess might be even too much for their own good, as, after two quick games, both struggled immensely to hold serve once things got well underway. Halep struck first in the fourth game, exploiting Bertens’s low percentages with her first serve, and some double faults caused by an imperfect ball toss, as had already happened against Sloane Stephens. However, Bertens didn’t flinch, and started reading Halep’s backhand down the line (a solution she needed to get out of the cage when Bertens pushed her wide), moving fast to her forehand and pushing her out on the other side, and immediately broke back. The pattern repeated itself in the next two games, Halep breaking and getting caught right back, this time following a double fault.
In hindsight, that was a bad omen for Halep: she put 87% of her first serves into play, an average that stayed regular for the whole match, but couldn’t conjure much speed or angle, so Bertens had no troubles whatsoever finding depth on her return, owning Halep’s game from the beginning, and breaking serve regularly. On the other hand, Bertens was serving at a low rate, but is one of the most efficient servers on tour (tied with Pliskova for most aces and first in serve points won among players with at least three matches), and when your opponent’s mightiest weapon isn’t working, you should be able to easily circumvent them, but that wasn’t the case. On the contrary, if you don’t manage to take a consistent lead, you get more and more nervous, because you know that said weapon will start working sooner or later, and that’s when the problems start – which is exactly what happened.
In the eighth game, Bertens finally found her stride, hitting two unreturned serves and an ace. The match revolved around this change: Halep tried to target the backhand, but took a shot down-the-line right in the face and lost a rally using the same tactic, getting brokem for the third time, the decisive one, as Bertens easily held to take the first set.
The pattern didn’t change early in the second set, as Halep conceded the fourth break in a row, and everything seemed to be going wrong for her, and right for Bertens: in the second game, Halep missed a routine swinging volley, while Bertens scored a drop shot and a difficult backhand down the line on the run, sinking the Rumanian’s morale to its nadir, as she struggled to find her footing, especially in her forward sprints, usually perfect.
However, her reaction (a champion’s reaction) was to switch a gear in the third game, choosing to lay everything on the line. She hit every shot to hurt, scoring three winners, taking more risks and hitting more down the line, finally holding her serve to trail 1-2, and breaking back, as Bertens was initially caught off guard by this sudden change. However, she soon adapted to this risky version, keeping up with her reading of Halep’s serve, and still managing to move her opponent with cross-court shots when put under pressure, breaking in the fifth game and holding on to go 4-2 up.
Halep held for the second time in the set, and tried to break back in the eight game, which ultimately decided the match, and was one for the ages. Halep approached the net for the first time (she had been called to hit the volley six times, but had always lost the point), and took a 15-30 lead. However, one of the most twisted ironies ever seen on a tennis court followed: Bertens hit a good approach, to which Halep desperately scrambled, raising a defensive lob. Bertens smashed, but completely botched the impact, sending the shot miles long. However, Halep was sprinting in that direction to try and get a hold of the ball, and was hit by it well behind the baseline, absurdly losing the point after a remarkable defensive effort, basically the Night King letting Arya catch the knife while strangling her. The Rumanian still managed to get to a break point, after the net cord kindly vindicated her. However, Bertens wasn’t in the mood for gifts, put in three great serves to hold, and after a Halep hold went to serve for the match at 5-4.
In the final game Kiki double faulted for a 30-30 score, but kept serving well, fetching a match point that Halep saved with incredible dexterity, following a deflected approach with an incredible, almost-diving forehand volley. The world No.3 (she’ll be No.2 on Monday) then saved another by forcing a mistake. However, another deep shot by Bertens caused a mishit for a third championship opportunity, and the Dutch finally elicited one last long ball with a wide serve and a backhand dropshot to win in an hour and 27 minutes.
Retrospectively, Halep suffered what she usually does to other players, as she needs to assert her tactical superiority in order to ignite her competitive spirit. Today Bertens showed her the dark side of counter-punching, with a great serve to match and a colder demeanour, and all she could do was looking baffled rather than angry – this is what happens when they beat us at our own game.
Bertens became the first woman to win the tournament without dropping a set, conquering her ninth title, rising to No.4 in both the WTA Rankings and the WTA Race to Shenzen (Halep will be seventh in the latter), and collecting a hefty cheque worth just over a million pounds, whereas Halep failed to take back the WTA throne, but will probably still be the woman to beat in Paris.
Now they will both play in Rome (a tournament that Halep has never won, calling it her biggest career regret so far), where they might meet again in the semi-finals, and what a rematch that would be, but for Bertens this is not yet the time to look forward, as she celebrates the biggest title of her career.