Kiki Bertens Tries to Get Used to a New Label: French Open Contender

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ROME — When Kiki Bertens stepped onto Arthur Ashe Stadium four years ago at the United States Open as the second-round opponent of Serena Williams, who was bidding for a Grand Slam, she felt unworthy of the occasion.

“I thought I was really a player who really didn’t like to be on the big stage,” Bertens recalled in an interview. “Going into that match, I was only hoping to get a few games, and it felt like everyone was laughing at me for playing there.”

Bertens, then 23 and ranked 110th, pushed the top-ranked Williams into a tiebreaker in the first set.

“Maybe I didn’t know, still, that I was kind of good,” Bertens said. “I felt everyone else was so much better than I was, and I didn’t really feel like I belonged there. That has changed a lot.”

Heading into the French Open, which begins Sunday, Bertens is the oddsmakers’ second favorite to win the tournament, behind only the defending champion Simona Halep. At No. 4, Bertens is now the highest-ranked Dutchwoman in WTA history.

Bertens’s coach, the former Dutch player Raemon Sluiter, said that Bertens began to compete with the best after she shook off her complacency.

“Kiki is in a process of changing from the girl who was already happy being ranked 70th or 60th, and that was where she belonged,” Sluiter said. “Then to a girl who made top 50 and that was where she belonged, to top 20 and that was where she belonged, and now a girl in the top 10, where she belonged — and even up. You have to give somebody time. But time is not really on your side if you are a professional tennis player, so everything needs to be sped up.”

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Sluiter, whose ranking peaked at No. 46, now sees the urgency of making the most of a career before it’s too late.

“Capability can be a burden,” he said. “It’s tough because you have to figure it out for your tennis life in such a short space. That fast-forward button needs to be pushed in all the time, and we have a tendency to forget that.”

Bertens has indeed been racking up titles quickly, winning four in the past year: the Madrid Open this month, which was her sixth title on clay, and her first three WTA titles on hard courts, in Cincinnati, Seoul and St. Petersburg.

She said that after her victory in Cincinnati, “every tournament I go in and I have the feeling that I can win it.

“I know I can do it, and that’s a change,” she said.

Bertens used to be O.K. with making second or third rounds at tournaments.

“I believe now that I can win tournaments, and before I was just hoping,” she said.

Bertens backs her belief with a tireless work ethic; Sluiter said she had not had one poor effort in practice since before last season.

“One of the biggest things I notice about her is that she looks more fit now than she did a few years ago,” top-ranked Naomi Osaka said. “She just looks really strong. That helps her movement-wise, for sure, just sort of getting in and out of the corners.”

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Among contenders for the French Open title, Bertens is rare in that her favorite surface is clay, which could make her more assured in crucial moments against players who prefer other surfaces.

Where Bertens is less proven is at the Grand Slam events. In 27 Grand Slam appearances, Bertens has reached the second week only three times, with a semifinal run at the French Open in 2016 standing out as her peak.

Sluiter said Bertens’s track record of steady success at tour events should be able to give her the belief that she can translate her game onto bigger stages.

“She can take a lot of trust and courage from the way she handled all these situations before, which she thought she would never handle,” he said. “That should give her confidence for what we’re talking about, which is the last few steps.”

As good as Bertens is, she is competing in an era of women’s tennis when success sprawls across scores of players, and even the most accomplished competitors are rarely sure bets to win the titles for which they look positioned on paper.

“If you’re a little off or you’re not feeling the ball or you’re feeling tight, there are maybe 50 girls who can beat you on that day,” Sluiter said. “That’s the case with the WTA Tour right now. Of course I understand the fact that she’s one of the picks to win the tournament, but we see it in perspective.”

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For Bertens, that reality of the tour helps her keep overconfidence at bay.

“I also still know that I can lose against anyone,” Bertens said. “That’s how tennis is sometimes: You can have good days, you can have bad days, your opponents can play really well. I know all the other girls can play really well; everyone’s working really hard to get here. I know I can do it, but I also know the other girls can do it. I’m just trying to do my best, and we’ll see if it’s enough or not.”



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