Belinda Bencic is proving that prodigies can have second acts

Belinda Bencic is proving that prodigies can have second acts

The 22-year-old Swiss reached her first career Grand Slam semifinal at the US Open with a 7-6 (5), 6-3 win over Donna Vekic.

NEW YORK—Belinda Bencic was in a rage. She had just dropped her serve for the first time against Donna Vekic, at an inopportune moment: 4-4 in the first set. Bencic had hit a forehand wide, a backhand into the net, and a backhand long. She spiked her racquet on the court and spent the subsequent changeover ranting at her father and coach, Ivan.

Bencic has let her temper get the better of her before, including at this year’s Wimbledon, where she went over the emotional edge in a three-set loss to Alison Riske. This time, though, something different happened; the venting helped. She came back out and played two of her best games of the match, breaking Vekic and holding easily for 6-5 with a series of deep returns and backhands that rushed Vekic. Bencic would hold on to her good form the rest of the way. Her 7-6 (5), 6-3 win catapulted her to her first Grand Slam semifinal.

“I think sometimes I need to get frustrated,” Bencic said today. “I feel like I let it out. I feel a little bit better after. I start to play better, I’m more pumped. Sometimes this happens with me.”

Photos from Anita Aguilar

For anyone who has followed Bencic’s career since her early teens, it can be hard to believe that she hasn’t been this far at a major before. She began as a can’t-miss protégé of Martina Hingis’ mother, Melanie Molitor, and in 2013 she won 39 straight matches as a junior. She beat Serena Williams on her way to the Toronto title in 2015 and rose to a career-high No. 7 in the world in 2016. Bencic was touted as the next Hingis, and not without reason.

Like Hingis, Bencic has a knack for taking the ball early and, with exquisite timing, redirecting it at will. She doesn’t need to pulverize the ball to rob her opponents of time. If Hingis could reach No. 1 with that style, why couldn’t Bencic?

The reason, it seemed, was injuries. Bencic has been plagued by them; just when she recovered from a back injury, a wrist injury came along to sideline her again. Even when she returned to the tour and played ITF and Challenger events in 2018, her progress was slow. At the start of 2019, she was still ranked No. 54. She had to watch as a younger player who had never been as highly praised as a junior, Naomi Osaka, won two major titles and became No. 1. Had Bencic’s moment passed?

She says she never stopped believing in her talent, and in the evidence of her early results.

“It’s there like a dream always,” Bencic said when she was asked how she “sustained herself” through the tough days. “Even when you are playing bad, you want to come back to this feeling. You want to eventually get the big wins and have these nice feelings.

“I think that’s motivation enough to keep going.”

And then, suddenly, the dream came true again. Once upon a time, Bencic had announced her potential to the world by tearing through half a dozen Top 25 players to winning the Rogers Cup. She did something similar in Dubai in February. There, in a one-week swoop, she beat Aryna Sabalenka, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina and Petra Kvitova, all in three-set matches. Bencic was back in the Top 15, and now she’s in the US Open semifinals. Along the way, she has also beaten Osaka three times.

Watching her beat Vekic today, I had the same feeling about Bencic’s game that I did in her early heyday. She moves forward so relentlessly that she doesn’t have time to bother with conventional footwork, especially on her backhand side. Instead of turning her body and stepping forward with her front foot, she’ll face the net and step in with what would normally be her back foot.

When this technique works, it can look like the future of tennis, one where everyone runs through their shots and still hits clean winners. For all of her power, Osaka had no answer for Bencic’s redirections in the fourth round. But when Bencic’s style doesn’t work, which it didn’t at times against Vekic today, I start to think it’s too strange and risky, and wonder how she wins with it. Bencic’s game may not be the future, but when it’s clicking, and she’s taking everything early and pushing the rallies, it is one of the most effective, and most fun, games of the present.

“I was dreaming, of course, about this day coming, but you never know what’s going to happen,” Bencic said. “You’re not thinking about it. You’re just right in the moment. It’s not like I never imagined I could do this.”

Bencic’s rise this season is proof that talent doesn’t lie, and that prodigies can have second acts. At 22, hers could last for a long time.

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