Belinda Bencic pulled off the biggest surprise of the Mutua Madrid Open on Thursday, rallying from 5-3 down in the third set to beat World No. 1 Naomi Osaka for the second time this year, 3-6 6-2 7-5.
After the two players split the first two sets, it looked like Osaka would run away with it as she broke at love for 3-2 in the third and then held for 4-2. The Japanese was a game away from victory at 5-3, too, but Bencic came alive one last time from there, winning four games in a row—including breaking at love when Osaka served for the match at 5-4—to close out the two-hour-and-10-minute stunner.
It was Bencic’s second win in as many tour-level meetings against Osaka, having beaten her in the fourth round of Indian Wells earlier this year. Osaka was ranked No. 1 in the world there, too. Bencic now has three career wins over World No. 1s—she beat then-No. 1 Serena Williams in the semifinals of Toronto in 2015.
“It was very difficult today. I think it was a great match,” Bencic said in her on-court interview. “At first I didn’t have much rhythm against Naomi, but from 3-5 in the third set I just relaxed—I think 3-5 is my score! I’m just very relieved right now, and maybe I’ll realize what I’ve achieved later today.”
Osaka’s aggressive game was on point: she had 48 winners to just 31 unforced errors. But Bencic’s positive but more conservative numbers, 28 winners to 21 unforced errors, were too solid on the day.
The Swiss’ victory now leaves the door open for Simona Halep to potentially take No. 1 back from Osaka this week. If Halep goes on to win the title, she’ll regain the top ranking from the Japanese.
Next up for Bencic will be the No. 3-ranked Halep, who won her quarterfinal against Ashleigh Barty earlier in the day, 7-5, 7-5. Halep had chances to close both sets out more routinely —she led 5-3 first set and 4-2 second set—but the No. 9-ranked Barty broke back both times before finally going down.
Barty had been on an 11-match winning streak that started in March with her run to the Miami title.
The Australian had also beaten Halep in the pair’s last meeting in Sydney earlier this year.
“This is a very special tournament for me,” said Halep, a two-time champion in Madrid in 2016 and 2017. “I always feel special when I come to play here. I get positive energy when I come on this court.
“But I’m just in the semifinals now. Tomorrow will be a big challenge as well. I’m just going to think about what I’m going to do in tomorrow’s match, not the result. I’ll try to play my best tennis and win.”
Bencic leads Halep in their head-to-head series, 2-1. Bencic has actually won their last two meetings, first in the final of Toronto in 2015 when Halep had to retire down 3-0 in the third set due to heat illness, and then earlier this year in the quarterfinals of Dubai, where Bencic prevailed, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.