Friday, July 30, 2021

It's hard to say goodbye, and even harder to say it three times

Kiki Bertens (photo by Daniel Ward)

It's always tough for fans when a talented, popular player retires. These are hard times, for not one, but three talented and popular players are leaving the tour. Kiki Bertens, Carla Suarez Navarro and Barbora Strycova have all announced their retirement. Each woman added something special to the WTA, and each will be remembered for her contributions, not only to the game, but to the unique culture that is women's professional tennis.

Kiki Bertens, who was ranked as high as number 4 in singles, was known as a clay court specialist for years, but then she showed the tennis world that she could be just as deadly on a hard court. In 2018, she won both Charleston and Cincinnati, securing her place as a two (at least)-surface threat. 

Several years ago, I had a strong feeling that Bertens could win the French Open. In 2019, I was no longer alone--the Dutchwoman was a top favorite--the favorite for some--to win in Paris. She had won Madrid without dropping a set, and her chances to win a major looked really good.

Sadly, Bertens had to retire in the second round when she became ill, and we'll never know what might have been. Nevertheless, she retires with a wonderful career record. Bertens won ten singles titles, the most notable of them, of course, in Charleston, Cincinnati and Madrid. She also won ten doubles titles, was on the Dutch Olympic team in 2016, and played Fed Cup for The Netherlands for eight years.

Bertens won a lot of points with her heavy topspin forehand, but she employed enough variety in her shot-making to get the better of a variety of opponents. The 29-year-old Bertens was also known for her high level of fitness. A nagging Achilles injury, however, contributed to her decision to retire from professional tennis. She also acknowledged that her pandemic-related time away from the tour allowed her to look at other options for her life.

"...Covid came and everything changed, of course," Bertens said when she announced her retirement. "I gave my body total rest because I felt like I needed it. With the unknown, it was tough to go out there and practice every day. So I thought I would give my body a total rest, and I quite liked it, to be honest."

The 29-year-old Dutch star acknowledged that she might have played for another two or three years if the pandemic hadn't come along and given her that rest. But, she added, there were days when it was hard for her to walk, so she doesn't really know how much longer she could have played. She played her final match at the 2021 Olympics, losing in the opening round to Marketa Vondrousova.

Bertens was both a crowd favorite and a peer favorite--always candid, always trying to improve, always available for a good laugh. She will be missed.

Also playing her final match at the Olympics was Carla Suarez Navarro, whose retirement story was especially poignant because the 32-year-old Spanish player had spent eight months undergoing both chemotherapy and radiation for Hodgkin's lymphoma. Suarez Navarro said that she knew that 2020 would be her last year on the tour, but then she changed her mind because she didn't want people to remember her as someone ill with cancer. "I didn't want to go through the back door...."

Suarez Navarro played at both the French Open and Wimbledon, then competed at the Olympics, where she defeated the talented Ons Jabeur in the first round. She and her friend, Garbine Muguruza, teamed for doubles competition, and made it to the second round.

Known for her beautiful one-handed backhand, Suarez Navarro won two singles titles (including Doha, in 2016, and three doubles titles (all with Muguruza). She played on Spain's Fed Cup team for eleven years, and she was a three-time member of the Spanish Olympic team.

Also announcing her retirement was Barbora Strycova, a very talented doubles player who could also be a tough singles opponent (she reached the 2019 Wimbledon semifinals). Strycova won two singles titles and 31 doubles titles, including the 2020 Wimbledon title (with Hsieh Su-wei). She was the world number 1 doubles player in 2019. Strycova played on the Czech Fed Cup team for twelve years, and she was twice a member of the Czech Olympic team.

The 35-year-old Czech player, who is pregnant with her first child, is a podcaster and a figure skater, and has long had somewhat of a cult following among serious WTA fans. She has been called "The Professor," a fact to which Elina Svitolina can attest:


One of my favorite of Strycova's professorial moments occurred when she showed Aga Radwanska how to "Radwanska" at the 2016 French Open:

The Czech star, in announcing her retirement, said that she hopes to play one final WTA event in 2022. We can only hope. One thing for sure--there will never be another like her. Perhaps world number 1 Ash Barty said it best when she described Strycova as a "hell of a chick."

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