Bencic Comes Of Age, Reaches First Major Semifinal At US Open

NEW YORK, September 4, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

Three wins from lifting her first Grand Slam trophy, Belinda Bencic came into her United States Open quarterfinal match on Arthur Ashe Stadium Wednesday afternoon knowing that she could guarantee her return to the Top 10 for the first time since June 2016 with a victory. Across the net from the 13th-seeded Swiss Miss stood her good friend and opponent, Donna Vekic, who had plenty of incentive to win, too. After all, a victory by the No. 23 seed from Croatia would secure a Top 20 debut.

Look out for the tennis player who is confident and happy – and on this day, it was Bencic who exuded these qualities. She beat Vekic, 7-6 (5), 6-3, in one hour and 41 minutes to reach her first major semifinal. On Thursday evening, Bencic will play either No. 15 seed Bianca Andreescu of Canada or No. 25 seed Elise Mertens from Belgium, with a first-time berth in a Grand Slam final going to the victor. The other semifinal will match fifth seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine against 23-time Grand Slam champion and eighth seed Serena Williams of the United States.

“It’s always a bit sweeter when you come back from surgery and you’ve missed months,” said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver, a 1978 US Open finalist, after Bencic’s victory. After breaking into the Top 10, Bencic missed five months after having surgery on her left wrist in 2017. Her ranking plummeted. “She was once ranked 300th in the world. It’s so much sweeter the second time around.”

Back in the US Open quarterfinals for the first time since 2014 as a wunderkind 17-year-old, Bencic has shown much maturity this year. She’s reached two finals, won a hard-court title in Dubai, and posted six wins over Top 5 opponents this season – most among all WTA players. On Monday, the 22-year-old Bencic beat top seed Naomi Osaka for the third time in 2019. Her 7-5, 6-4 win during the round of 16 halted Osaka’s US Open title defense. Bencic played solidly and without fear against the World No. 1. Now, aiming to become the first Swiss semifinalist in a major since her mentor, Martina Hingis, in 2001, she recovered from a break down in the first set and came back to triumph over Vekic, who was appearing in her first major quarterfinal, in straight sets.

“Off the court we are friends,” said Bencic after beating Vekic, “but on the court we know how to do our work and to focus.” After winning, she quipped, “I think we are still friends.”

With very little separating them statistically throughout the match, it came down to Bencic’s superior abilities in clutch moments – such as navigating her way through a tricky first set tie-break after Vekic earlier served for the set at 5-4, and in breaking Vekic’s serve in the seventh game of the second set to go ahead for good – that made the difference between winning and losing. Although Vekic saved two match points on her serve with a pair of solid forehand winners, ultimately, it was an unforced error that sealed victory for Bencic.

Bencic hit eight ace aces and tallied 20 winners against 21 unforced errors while Vekic finished with an equal number (28) of winners and unforced errors. Bencic outpointed her opponent 78-65.

During her post-match interview with ESPN’s Rennae Stubbs, Bencic admitted that dealing with the adversity of multiple injuries suffered earlier in her career ultimately helped her. “It gave me a different perspective for tennis,” she said. “Sometimes, you take things for granted, you’re successful. You have the pressure, and then you don’t have it any more. When you can’t play, you miss it so much. I’m enjoying my tennis so much now. I’m going to enjoy this victory.”

Bencic said she would watch the Andreescu-Mertens quarterfinal on TV with her father and coach, Ivan Bencic, without hesitation. “I’m more motivated to play on the big stage,” she said following her win against Vekic.

Come Thursday evening, when it gets down to the final four, it’s all about one’s ability to be comfortable – and happy – and to perform at one’s highest under the greatest pressure. Through this New York fortnight, that’s what Bencic has done so well.

Kuzmova-Sasnovich upset No. 3 seeds

Third seeds Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada and Xu Yifan of China, ranked No. 11, lost to unseeded Viktoria Kuzmova of Slovakia and Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, in a quarterfinal women’s doubles match Wednesday afternoon on Louis Armstrong Court. The winners will face the eighth seeds Victoria Azarenka of Belarus and Ashleigh Barty of Australia, who on Tuesday took out the top seeds Timea Babos of Hungary and Kristina Mladenovic of France, 2-6, 7-5, 6-1.

By the numbers

• None of the players who remained in the top half of the draw at the start of Wednesday’s play – Belinda Bencic, Donna Vekic, Bianca Andreescu and Elise Mertens – had reached the US Open semifinals before. Only the No. 25 seed Mertens had advanced to the last four of any major – at the 2018 Australian Open.

• Elise Mertens has lost just 16 games through the first four rounds, the fewest of any of the women’s quarterfinalists.

• Belinda Bencic is no stranger to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, site of the US Open. In 2012, she teamed with Petra Uberalova to reach the finals of the girls’ doubles. They lost to Taylor Townsend and Gabrielle Andrews.

• There are three players from Belarus remaining in the doubles draw: Victoria Azarenka, Aryna Sabalenka and Aliaksandra Sasnovich.

What they’re saying

Hall of Fame great Martina Navratilova, speaking on Tennis Channel Live at the U.S. Open, on Serena Williams’ 6-1, 6-0 rout of 18th-ranked Wang Qiang in Tuesday night’s quarterfinals for her 100th US Open victory: “Serena dominated every aspect of the game. She’s the kind of player who if you don’t play your best tennis – if you don’t bring your best game – you don’t stand a chance.”

Thursday women’s schedule

Singles semifinals / Arthur Ashe Stadium
(Times to be announced)
No. 5 Elina Svitolina vs. No. 8 Serena Williams
No. 13 Belinda Bencic vs. No. 15 Bianca Andreescu/No. 25 Elise Mertens winner