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Weekend Winners: Opelka and Bencic launch their clay seasons in the best way possible, with their first titles on the surface
How the American won in an all-servebot Houston final against Isner, and the Swiss battled through in an intense contest with Jabeur in Charleston.
Published Apr 11, 2022
WATCH: Match highlights from Belinda Bencic's victory over Ons Jabeur in the 2022 Charleston Open final.
“Every tennis purist’s dream clay court final,” Reilly Opelka tweeted before his title match against John Isner in Houston on Sunday.
Anyone who follows tennis understood that Opelka had his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek when he made that statement. The 24-year-old American regularly jokes about his status as a serve-bot, a term of something less than endearment among tennis fans, and one that he shares with Isner.
A final between two of the tallest players in the sport’s history—Opelka is 6’11", Isner 6’10"—was hardly a dream for anyone who loves the long rallies that clay normally produces.
It’s true that Opelka’s 6-3, 7-6(7) win was not reminiscent of a clash between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros. Still, there were rallies. There were ground strokes. There were powerful winners and good gets. There was net-rushing. And, of course, there were aces and titanic kick serves that nearly sent the returner tumbling into the first row at little River Oaks Country Club.
Most importantly, there were clutch saves from Opelka. He fended off all eight of Isner’s break points, and all three of Isner’s set points in the second-set tiebreaker. Opelka saved them in a variety of ways: With service winners, naturally, but also with a forehand winner, a volley winner, and a return he put at Isner’s shoe-tops.
If this final wasn’t for the clay-court purists of the world, it seemed to mean a lot to Opelka and Isner, who had never put their towering frames and similar games up against each other in a championship match.
“He was my idol growing up as a kid, and even before I met him, I liked him,” Opelka said. “But since we became such good friends and spent so much time on tour, I like him even more.”
“It was really cool to play you in a final," the 36-year-old Isner said. “I think that’s very unique. Obviously there are a lot of similarities between Reilly and I, but I’m much older than him, and he has a lot more years ahead of him on tour, so for me to get to play you in a final, I think that’s very, very special.”
Belinda Bencic was staring, dagger-eyed, toward the other side of the new stadium court in Charleston on Sunday afternoon.
The 25-year-old Swiss was serving for her first title of 2022, and the first clay-court title of her career, at the Credit One Charleston Open. But first she had to pause to let a late-arriving fan, who was directly in her line of vision, find a seat.
It was one more aggravation on an afternoon that had been full of them for Bencic and her final-round opponent, Ons Jabeur. Over the previous two and a half hours, they had entertained the crowd—the first full house in Charleston since the pandemic began—with a lively, imperfect contest. Bencic, standing close to the baseline and taking everything early, had run away with the first set 6-1. In the second set, Jabeur had used her disruptive mix of power, spin, and finesse to get a foothold in the match, and get her opponent on edge. Bencic never trailed, but she still spent a good portion of the day glaring and gesturing in the direction of her coaching team.
Bencic was so agitated, she almost let a sure thing slip away. At 4-4 and 5-5 in the second set, she had multiple chances to break, but couldn’t cash in. In the third set, she led 3-1, before losing the next two games. Up 5-3, she had a match point on Jabeur’s serve, but failed to convert. Now, after surviving all of that, with a chance to serve for the match, she had to wait until the fan across the court finally sat down.
Then, in the day’s biggest surprise, Bencic played her calmest game of the match. She hit a backhand winner. She hit a forehand winner. And on match point, she watched a Jabeur return sail over the baseline. Bencic fell down, stood up, and looked over at her team—with a smile and a fist-pump, instead of a glare.
Afterward, Bencic recalled her breakthrough trip to the semifinals in Charleston when she was a 17-year-old mini-Martina Hingis who looked like she might be No. 1 in the world someday. She had never taken the next step and reached the final until this weekend.
“It means so much to me today because it was the biggest tournament for me when I played the semis in 2014,” she said, “so it’s extra special to finally win here.”
Bencic started 2022 slowly, but showed signs of progress in Miami, where she lost a close semifinal to Naomi Osaka. While she hasn’t reached No. 1, or fulfilled all of her early promise, she still has the ability to go on a tear and mow down even the stiffest competition over the course of a week. She did it in Toronto in 2015; she did it in Dubai in 2019; now she’s done it in Charleston in 2022. After nearly losing her opening match to Xiyu Wang, she beat 2019 champion Madison Keys, and two Top 10 players, Paula Badosa and Jabeur, over four days.
All of that leaves Bencic at No. 13 in the rankings—within reach of the Top 10, and Grand Slam contention.