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Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic is playing with nothing to lose. So far, she hasn’t lost that confidence, or even a set
On her fourth-round win over Iga Swiatek, and their tightrope-walk tiebreaker.
Published Sep 06, 2021
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NEW YORK—We’ve reached “it’s anybody’s tournament” stage on the women’s side of the US Open. The top seed, Ash Barty is gone; the defending champion, Naomi Osaka is gone; the highest seed left, Aryna Sabalenka, has never reached a major final before. Only two players left in the draw, Barbora Krejcikova and Bianca Andreescu, have a Grand Slam title to their names. There’s no one here who qualifies as a towering obstacle to the others’ ambitions.
If anybody can win the title, that includes Belinda Bencic. She has as much momentum as anyone, having just won Olympic gold. She has reached the semifinals at the US Open before, in 2019. And while she hasn’t been past the third round at a major since, a Bencic title run wouldn’t come from nowhere. This is a player who, at 17, was widely expected to make the Top 5, if not become No. 1 in the world. She was taught by Martins Hingis’ mother, and seemed to have the same kind of court smarts as Hingis. In Toronto in 2015, Bencic beat four of the Top 6 players in the world, including Serena Williams, for the title.
But No. 1, or the Top 5, hasn’t happened for Bencic, now 24. Injuries slowed her early progress, and even when she was healthy, her temper often got the best of her. Stronger players like Osaka and Andreescu powered their way to Slam titles instead. What Bencic has retained is the ability to go on a one-week tear and beat a string of quality players. She did just that last month in Tokyo; the question now is how long she can make this run of good form last.
“I played big matches there,” Bencic said of her Olympic experience, “and I kind of know now how it feels to go deep in a tournament and an important tournament.”
Bencic has brought the confidence she gained in Tokyo to New York. She has won four matches, all in straight sets, to reach the quarterfinals, and has beaten two seeded players, Jessica Pegula and Iga Swiatek, along the way. Her 7-6 (12), 6-3 win over Swiatek in the fourth round may have been her most impressive of the summer, both for the way she played, and the way she handled herself when things weren’t going her way.
Bencic had lost to Swiatek earlier in the season, but she was in command in the first set today. She took Swiatek’s heavy topspin on the rise and redirected it for winners. But serving for the set at 5-4, she double faulted on break point, and found herself down a set point at 5-6. She ranted toward her player box and slapped her racquet frame on the court, but she regained her composure quickly and saved that set point with a forehand winner.
Bencic did the same throughout the long, back and forth, tightrope walk of a tiebreaker that ended the first set. She made her share of mistakes, and lost her share of chances to win the set. But she always had an answer for Swiatek, and always made her hit an extra ball. That paid off when the Pole missed a makable putaway volley that would have ended the set. By the time both players were in double digits in the tiebreaker, they knew that the loser would have a tough time bouncing back, and that’s how it worked out.
“It was important. It was very important the first set.,” Bencic said. “It’s mentally important because you know when you lose a set like this, it's very frustrating. Yeah, a little bit bitter, you know, to lose a set like this.”
Bencic said that she was inspired by the unique, patriotic, team-oriented atmosphere of the Olympics.
“I was on a high the whole week emotionally, really looking forward to every day,” she said of her Tokyo experience. “I really loved the village.”
She says those positive vibes led to a looser, more upbeat, more aggressive mindset on court.
“I feel like this kind of transitioned to my game a little bit,” she said, “going for it, I have nothing to lose, I’m so happy to be here kind of vibes as well.”
Is it possible to keep those vibes on tour? Bencic says she’s not looking at the Olympics as a stepping stone; the gold medal will always stand alone for her.
“For me, achieving this, it’s already amazing, if I can stop my career tomorrow, I can be very happy about everything.”
But Bencic won’t be stopping her career tomorrow, or anytime soon. She’ll play 18-year-old Emma Raducanu next. When she does, she may see a little bit of herself from six of seven years ago across the net. Bencic and Raducanu are at two different stages of their careers, but they’re both on the rolls of their lives. The one who wins, like everyone else still left in this draw, might just find herself holding a US Open trophy a few days from now.