Belinda Bencic and Karolina Pliskova are two players who could each use a little of what the other one has. If Bencic has a weakness, it’s her lack of putaway power, something that comes naturally to Pliskova. Conversely, Pliskova’s flaw—the long strides that can keep her from moving forward proactively—is Bencic’s most obvious strength.
So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that when the Swiss and the Czech met in the quarterfinals at Indian Wells on Thursday, those strengths and weaknesses largely cancelled each other out, and the two played an exceedingly tight three-setter that became more riveting as it went along. They have been two of the WTA’s top performers so far in 2019: Pliskova won a title in Brisbane and made the semis at the Australian Open, while Bencic beat four Top 10 opponents in her run to the championship in Dubai two weeks ago. Their first career meeting didn’t disappoint.
Over the course of the first two sets, each player had a chance to show off what she does best, and how effective it can be. Bencic began by taking everything at, or inside the baseline, coolly controlling the rallies, and breaking Pliskova’s lethal serve twice.
“She overwhelms her opponent by where she makes contact,” Lindsay Davenport said of Bencic in the Tennis Channel booth.
“It’s difficult to make a plan against Karolina Pliskova because of her serve,” Bencic said afterward. “I was just trying to disturb her rhythm.”
While Bencic was showing us what she does well in the first set, Pliskova was doing the opposite. During a sideline visit, her coach, Conchita Martinez, urged her to move up to the ball more quickly, with energetic steps. Pliskova listened, and began to wrest control of the points from Bencic. At the same time, Bencic, despite having a lead and being firmly in control, became agitated for no apparent reason.
“It’s bizarre to see her get so rattled right now,” Davenport said.
Was Bencic feeling the pressure that’s bound to come with her stellar recent results? By the time she settled down again, she trailed 0-4. She worked her way back, and saved four set points with Pliskova serving at 4-5, but she couldn’t save the fifth.
As the third set began, the level of play peaked, as the two jockeyed for position on top of the baseline. Forehand passes were met with better drop volleys; hard crosscourt ground strokes came back harder down the line; break points were earned with good shots, and saved with great ones. Serving at 1-2, Pliskova fended off four break points and held in a 13-minute game.
“I did a lot of running,” Bencic said with a laugh afterward.
Bencic is trimmer than she has been over the last couple of seasons, when she was plagued by injuries, and she has credited her improved fitness with her resurgence. If anything, she grew stronger and more confident down the stretch on Thursday. She held at love for 3-2, cashed in on her first break point at 4-3, and closed the match out nervelessly for a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 win.
In her final service hold, Bencic also reminded us of her roots, and of why she was so highly touted as a teenager. Faced with a tricky, high backhand volley, she casually knocked it off, with topspin, for a winner, without having to break stride. It’s a shot that came right of the playbook of her mentor, Martina Hingis.
These days, Bencic is on a run that’s reminiscent of Hingis in her prime. This was her sixth Top 10 win in her last eight matches; five of those victories have come in three sets. Bencic is taking the best that these top players have to give, and finding a way to beat it. Few would be surprised if she does it again, against either Angelique Kerber or Venus Williams in the semis.
“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” is how the cliché goes. Bencic is about to give it a twist: She can beat the players in the Top 10, and pretty soon she’s going to join ’em.