Sometimes, Madrid is a bellwether event on the women’s side. In 2013, Serena Williams beat Maria Sharapova in the final, and then did it again in the final of the French Open one month later. The same thing happened the following season, when Sharapova edged Halep in Madrid and Paris, both times in three sets.
This year’s version of the tournament had a bellwether feel to it again. Two of the four semifinalists—Halep and Sloane Stephens—played for the title at Roland Garros in 2018, while the other two, Kiki Bertens and Belinda Bencic, have already won tournaments this year, and are sure to figure in more major matches down the road in 2019.
Was the end result in Madrid—a 6-4, 6-4 win by Bertens over Halep—also a sign of things to come? Specifically, of things to come in Paris? It certainly seemed like it. Unfortunately for Bertens, a demure Dutchwoman who tries to fly as far under the radar as possible, her performance this week has put her on a very short list of favorites for the French Open. With the biggest title of her career in her pocket, and her ranking up to a career-high No. 4, it’s going to be hard for Bertens to avoid the spotlight for the rest of the clay-court swing.
The 27-year-old late-bloomer has earned the attention. Bertens became the first women’s champion in Madrid not to drop a set all tournament, and she beat four Grand Slam champs—Stephens, Halep, Petra Kvitova, and Jelena Ostapenko—along the way. Most impressive was the way Bertens brought all of her talents together to deny Halep a chance to reclaim the No. 1 ranking in the final.
Bertens did it first by finding a safe but effective way to attack Halep from the baseline. Rather than trying to hit the ball past the Romanian roadrunner, Bertens tried to hit it over her. She maxed out her topspin on her forehand, and sent the ball high and deep. Those heavy shots put Halep back on her heels and, at the same time, forced her to swing from above her shoulder. A surprising number of errors, 21, eventually flowed from Halep’s racquet.
When Bertens wasn’t pushing Halep backward, she was bringing her in with one of the best drop shots in the sport. Bertens broke serve in the first set with a forehand drop that died in the forecourt, and she broke up Halep’s rhythm with her backhand drop, a shot that she disguises so well that she can give the ball plenty of net clearance, and still leave her opponent spinning her wheels, unable to track it down. Bertens hit 25 winners in all, to just nine from Halep.
After a slight stumble out of the gate, everything that Bertens’ racquet touched turned to gold, and every tactical notion she had proved to be the right one. Even an overhead that Bertens shanked long ended up hitting Halep on the leg and winning her the point. But at 6-4, 2-0, nerves began to creep into Bertens’ arm, even as Halep began to swing more freely. When Halep broke and evened the set, it looked for a moment as if this match might be a repeat of last year’s French final; that day Stephens led Halep 6-3, 2-0, before the tide turned in the other direction. Bertens has vastly improved her game, and especially her movement, but her closing skills have remained a question mark. Like a lot of people, she can get tight.
Down the stretch on Saturday, Bertens went a long way toward answering those questions. It was her serve that made the difference, and that rescued her from another Halep comeback. Bertens made just 58 percent of her first serves, but she won 76 percent of those points. Time and again, she bailed herself out of trouble with good wide serves in the ad court, and aces down the T in the deuce court. Bertens has an exceedingly simple motion, but she can hit any type of delivery to any spot on the court with it.
“I couldn’t return her serve,” Halep said afterward.
“I think I played very solid today,” Bertens said. “I think at the beginning, I was a little bit searching for my game still, but I think the rest of the match I played solid, really smart, and I was just going for my shots.”
“I’m just really happy. I think after every title, you feel something of course. Sometimes it’s a lot of emotions. Sometimes it’s really happiness. I’m really proud of this week.”
This was Bertens’ first Premier Mandatory title, and in its comprehensiveness, this was her finest performance. She showed that she can play with any of the top women, and that she can hold her nerve on a major stage. In the final, she built a lead by playing at a high level, but even after her level dropped, she still found a way to cross the finish line. Finding a way: That’s what, as the cliche goes, champions do. Bertens is the deserving champion in Madrid; could she be an even bigger one soon?