Lesley Kerkhove: “Playing ITF tournaments after WTA is really different”

Lesley Kerkhove experienced the best season of her career in 2017. And this year, the Dutchwoman is one to keep an eye on. The world no. 179 recently spoke about her career-best season, her goals for the future, and the difficulties of switching between WTA and ITF tournaments.

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A Grand Slam main draw, a maiden WTA title, and career-high rankings in singles and doubles.

These were the highlights of 26-year-old Lesley Kerkhove’s 2017 season. And despite a loss in the final round of WTA Shenzhen Open qualifying last week, the Dutchwoman still made a positive start to the new year: reaching the doubles semifinals alongside Lidziya Marozava. The duo were closely matched with Barbora Strycova and Shenzhen singles finalist Katarina Siniakova in the last four, before going down in a champion’s tiebreak.

“My priority is singles, but I also like to play a lot of doubles,” says Kerkhove, who partnered Arantxa Rus to reach the junior French Open final in 2008.

Further success came at the tail end of last season, when the doubles world no. 75 won the WTA event in Luxembourg with Shenzhen partner Marozava. They took down the more experienced duo of Kirsten Flipkens and Eugenie Bouchard – both former Wimbledon semifinalists – for the trophy.

“I’d played Flipkens before in doubles, but never Bouchard,” Kerkhove reflects. “I’ve seen her play for a long time, but it’s still tougher actually playing someone for the first time, because you don’t know what to expect. It’s nice to have another opponent that you already know.”

She adds: “We didn’t expect to win the whole tournament. It was a very strong draw, so we just kept going match by match. And at the end we had an amazing result.”

On the WTA tour in recent times, doubles has served as a great ally for players in their singles careers. Kristina Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia have been leading examples – both Frenchwomen reaching the top ten last season. Kerkhove is far outside of that realm at present, but the effect of doubles on her singles game is evident. She is not the most powerful player, but the rising Dutchwoman reads the ball well, and can play with variety on a tour that features much monotonous baseline striking.

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Kerkhove and Friedsam prior to the Shrewsbury final.

This should help her to achieve the goals that she set as a youngster starting out in the game. Kerkhove’s parents, Robin and Carina, play tennis for fun, and introduced their eldest daughter to the sport at the age of four. While her 18-year-old sister, Romy, competes at a national level, the 26-year-old’s sights are set much higher.

“I wanted to play in the main draw of all four Grand Slams, and to be in the top 100 [in singles],” the Luxembourg champion recalls of her early ambitions. “And that’s still my goal. I’m close to it now and trying hard to reach it.”

The right-hander is currently ranked 179 in singles – exactly 30 spots off the career-high status she achieved in October. That jump in the rankings was aided by a solid run at the US Open, where the Dutch player qualified for a major tournament for the first time. During that event, she beat two players residing above her in the rankings.

“It was an amazing feeling to qualify for the US Open,” Kerkhove enthuses. “I played really good in qualies, and it was just really really nice to be there for the first time in the main draw. My favourite surface is outdoor hard-courts – I like the sun and the heat.”

This being the case, her next shot at qualifying for a Grand Slam appears well-suited to Kerkhove. The Australian Open – which begins in a matter of days – has been known for its extremes of heat, and provides an exciting opportunity for the Dutch no. 4 to continue her positive start to 2018.

Some strong showings in the months that follow will also help her to become a more consistent presence in WTA main draws. Currently, Kerkhove is darting back and forth between WTA qualifying events and ITF main draws – the tier of competition below the WTA. Just the week after claiming her Luxembourg doubles title in November, the top 200 player made the singles final of the $25,000 ITF contest in Shrewsbury as the top seed – losing only to former world no. 45 Anna-Lena Friedsam.

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Kerkhove during the Shrewsbury final in November 2017.

Similar to switching surfaces, the transition from a WTA event to an ITF competition has its challenges. But while some ITF events feature constant noise from other courts and passers by during points – and also lack adequate lines judges and ball kids – Kerkhove suggests that the biggest changes come away from the court.

“It’s really different, going straight from playing a WTA event to playing an ITF event,” she confirms. “On WTA everything is a little bit easier. You get great practice facilities, they organise food for you, they organise the hotel. But at an ITF you have to do all this by yourself.

“I like to have ball kids – it makes playing a little bit easier. Spares you a little bit of energy. But the noise from elsewhere doesn’t disturb me because I’m used to it, so it’s fine. It’s just organising all the [off-court] things by yourself that is the biggest difference.”

As she took Luxembourg match by match en route to her maiden WTA title, newly-engaged Kerkhove is looking to take things step by step in the near future.

“I really want to be top 100 soon – that’s my first goal,” she says. “And to make more Grand Slam main draws. I did it once, and I hope to play as many more main draws as possible in the coming year.”

There are four chances to make one of these prestigious fields in the upcoming year – one of them just around the corner. But if Kerkhove continues her sensible and focussed approach to the game, the opportunities will stretch far beyond this season.

Slow and steady often wins the race.

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