The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Lindsay Gibbs, May 14, 2019

Kiki Bertens is a legit major contender -- Serena's injury woes continue -- Sloane Stephens sounds off

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Kiki’s in contention

Last week, 27-year-old Dutch dynamo Kiki Bertens defeated four major champions to win the biggest title of her career at the Mutua Madrid Open, sealing her historic win with a 6-4, 6-4 defeat of Simona Halep in the final. She didn’t drop a set the entire tournament.

Now, she’s No. 4 in the world. Yes! That is not a typo. Number. Four.

And, though you might not know much about her unless you’re a very dedicated tennis fan, I’m here to tell you: There is nothing flukey about her success.

Bertens first caught the eye of tennis fans when she made a run to the fourth round of the French Open back in 2014, as a qualifier. Two years later she made it all the way to the semifinals of the French Open. But, despite becoming a regular in the WTA Top 40, she was miserable playing tennis, and almost quit the sport at the end of the 2017 season.

Thank goodness she didn’t.

Instead of quitting, Bertens rediscovered her love for the game and her commitment to greatness. Last year, she transformed from a clay-court specialist into an all-court player. She made the final on red clay in Madrid, the quarterfinals on grass at Wimbledon, and won two Premier titles on green clay in Charleston and on the hard courts of Cincinnati. She finished the season ranked No. 9 in the world.

Now, I’m here to tell you she can win the French Open. She’s improved on all surfaces, but clay is still her love. She’s got the shots, she’s got the fitness, and she a newfound comfort in the spotlight that should help her shine at Roland Garros, even given the pressure of her new-found status as a “contender.” Last year, she had more Top 10 wins than anyone else on the WTA Tour. In the past three years, she has more match wins on clay than any other player on tour.

“[O]n the clay, I really feel like I can play my own game,” Bertens told reporters in Madrid. “Even, like, when I don’t play well I’m still, I’m not panicking too much which, on other surfaces, it happens a little bit too much. But on clay I feel the confidence, I feel the balance in my game.”

If you want to fall in love with her drive and determination, listen to the WTA Insider Podcast this week, which features Courtney Nguyen interviewing both Bertens and her coach, Raemon Sluiter.

This Week in Tennis

Barbora Strycova and Hsieh Su-Wei won the doubles title in Madrid, and as always, their post-victory press conference is a must-read.

Nicole Gibbs, former Tennis Tuesday guest, has been diagnosed with cancer on the roof of her mouth. Thankfully, the prognosis is really good — she is having surgery this week, and hopes to be back in action by Wimbledon.

The WTA unveiled a new ad campaign: It Takes WTA. I don’t have strong feelings on this one, except for relief it doesn’t feature Donald Trump like their last one did. (Obviously, click on that last link at your own peril.)

This is the absolute best thing you will see this week. Don’t doubt me. Click on it. Now.

“So it’s just basically you have to eat grass. That’s kind of what I did. It was a nightmare.” – Serena Williams

It took Venus Williams nine match points (!!!), but she finally toppled Elise Mertens in the first round of Rome. (Scroll down on that link for some highlights.)

Venus was supposed to face Serena in the second round, but Serena pulled out of the tournament with a left knee injury. She’s pulled out of three straight tournaments after just one match. Brutal.

Belinda Bencic is adapting to the world of clay-court tennis.

Donna Vekic is battling a right hip injury and Angelique Kerber is battling an ankle injury. Caroline Wozniacki is battling a left lower leg injury. All three had to withdraw from Rome. Get well soon, please!

WTA Insider highlights Victoria Azarenka’s thoughts on balancing tennis and motherhood.

In case you didn’t click on the link I ordered you to click on above, I’m giving you another chance.

This week, there’s another big event in Rome, where Elina Svitolina is the two-time defending champion. Here’s the draw.

The French Open is less than two weeks away!!!

Tweet of the Week

Runner ups: Belinda Bencic and Sloane Stephens are in Rome for the Right Reasons.

Five at The IX: Sloane Stephens on her new coach and standing up for her competitors

In a press conference in Madrid, the always-quotable Stephens talked about her partnership with her new coach, Sven Groeneveld, and her desire to stick up for her fellow WTA players.

Q. You were saying that before the tournament bringing Sven brought structure, I don’t know if it meant your game or the practices or whatever it is. Can you talk a bit about kind of what he’s brought this week?

SLOANE STEPHENS: Yes, he’s been great. Obviously, being able to train for a little bit before coming here was good to just kind of try to get know each other and in the first part of the year, I was in and out, up and down, very emotional, it was a very bumpy road, and I think him coming in has brought structure and consistency and that’s — to play my best tennis that is what I need, so yeah, it’s gone well so far, so hopefully keep going.

Q. You feel the impact, like immediately? Some people will look at this and say Sloane made the semifinals of Madrid and cause and effect. I don’t know if you buy into that or less so?

SLOANE STEPHENS: I think that he’s a great coach and obviously, he’s helped me a lot. I definitely do think that, personally, I knew what I needed. I needed structure and consistency and someone who is going to have my back and be supportive, like all these things, and he checks all those boxes, so if it’s Sven is making me win, then Sven is making me win (laughing) and that’s all that matters. When I win, we all win.

Q. When you join with a new coach, how do you get to know them and break the ice? Is that just a lot of Indian food?

SLOANE STEPHENS: You have to get comfortable really quickly. Obviously, he’s from Holland, it’s a little bit different, I’m American. I eat whatever I want, I do — it’s a bit different (laughing) so I’ve got to just break the ice and not be afraid to say what needs to be said.

Obviously, in a new relationship, it’s like getting a new boyfriend, like you don’t want to, you don’t want to stuff your face at dinner, you don’t want to whatever. So it’s definitely tricky, but the sooner you get kind of adjusted and comfortable, the better I think the relationship is and I’m not afraid to say what I need, or what I want, or what I’m feeling, so yeah, that is where we are right now. It’s been a week and it’s been good so far.

Q. You played [Petra Martic] in Australia and I read that there was a video of her crying and you saw it and maybe said something?

SLOANE STEPHENS: I had to go. I was standing up for my girls, like she’s a competitor, but I don’t think that if it was a guy, they wouldn’t have put it up there and I think there’s some boundaries that obviously need to be put in place for situations like that.

And there’s definitely a human element to a sport and the things that are happening. We’d obviously played a very intense match, it was a great match, it was on TV, my grandparents were like, oh it was beautiful, blah blah blah. But there’s an element where it is like, you don’t just do that and I’m not afraid to say what I feel or how I feel how it needs to be said.

If no-one was going to speak up for her, I was. It is not my job, but that’s not something I want to see on TV, whether it was me or anyone else, and definitely not the first time that I have had to speak about such situations.

Q. Where do you get that from, being open to say whatever you want to say? Some people wouldn’t want to rock the boat.

SLOANE STEPHENS: Yeah, when things are wrong, they are wrong. And I mean that is just how I was raised. Like whether you are my friend or not, like if that is not how it is supposed to be, that is not how it is supposed to be. And I feel like at some point you have to speak up, where it is for something or someone else. If someone doesn’t have the voice to say what they need to say, you have to deal with it like that.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Lindsay Gibbs, @Linzsports ThinkProgress
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.