MELBOURNE—Thursday morning, just after 11 a.m., was a fine time for Margaret Court Arena to take on the qualities of a tennis classroom. Outside the east entrance of the court stood the woman it was named for, Ms. Court herself. The 77-year-old Aussie legend stood in front of an exhibit showcasing her career highlights. Court posed for pictures with fans and chatted up such mates as former Top 10 pro John Alexander. On this golden anniversary of her winning all four majors in a calendar year, Court’s regal presence made her a tangible professor emeritus.
In came the students, Belinda Bencic and Jelena Ostapenko. The only previous time these two had played, at Indian Wells in 2018, Ostapenko had won, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1. (They had also met as juniors; per below.)
Jelena Ostapenko and Belinda Bencic share a similar path. Both had a very successful career as juniors. Both had an early breakthrough on the women's tour. Both struggled afterwards. They first played each other in Prag in 2011, with Bencic winning in 3 sets. #AusOpen pic.twitter.com/z43AgKxevx— Simon Häring (@_shaering) January 23, 2020
Today, though, diligence beat inspiration. Over the course of one hour and 41 minutes, Bencic won a 7-5, 7-5 rollercoaster of a match. The tennis featured both sparkling rallies and a rather vexing inability for either player to command her serve with significant consistency.
“This is exactly what I expected, this kind of match,” said Bencic. All told, there were 17 service breaks in this match and an equal number of double-faults. These are not good work habits.
It’s likely the sixth-seeded Bencic would never turn in her homework late. Her game hinges on her ability to capture time and space, a quest to triangulate the court. Managed well, propelled by her feet and the energy she draws from the ground, Bencic’s ball generates exceptional velocity with a pleasing crispness. Coached in her formative years by Martina Hingis’ savvy mother, Melanie Molitor, subsequently also mentored by Hingis, Bencic is an exemplary tennis student.
“The strength of my game is to kind of find solutions on the court," said Bencic, "and try to beat my opponent just with what I have on this given day.”
Consider Ostapenko the one student who arrives with a dog-eared notebook who is late with her homework, questions the teacher without raising her hand, borrows a pen—but then comes up with an idea on the final paper that no one has ever thought of before. Whether the 22-year-old former French Open champion’s current ranking of No. 45 reveals or belies her destiny figures to be a subject of immense curiosity for another three years. Lest we consider Ostapenko simply a cocky kid who only listens to her mother’s advice and threats the world with a cheeky shrug, last fall she began to work with a stylistic near-clone, Marion Bartoli.
To say Bencic jumped off to a 3-0, double-break lead does not quite do justice to the sporadic generosity of Ostapenko. But then, as anticipated, for reasons unknowable but oddly compelling, Ostapenko’s play picked up. She won four games in a row, her quintessential concussive quality making Bencic look slow. Even the Ostapenko serve, by far her most awkwardly struck shot, delivered much power. At 3-3, 30-30, Ostapenko pinpointed a 104 ace down the T. On the next point, Ostapenko summoned up Monica Seles with one hard and deep drive another. Three straight crosscourt shots within inches of each line—backhand, forehand, backhand—elicited Bencic errors. Given their history, having overcome such a massive early deficit, all momentum at this point was clearly Ostapenko’s.
“You have to accept that she's gonna play amazing at times and have great rallies, even if you kind of deserve to win this point—but she's just gonna hit an amazing winner," said Bencic. "Sometimes, yeah, it's a little bit not logical or a little bit unfair, you might think. But you just have to keep going every point, and try to put every ball back, because also she's going to give you a few. Take advantage from those little opportunities you have.”
Bencic held to level the set at 4-all. There followed three straight service breaks. It is baffling that for all the hours many contemporary players devote to groundstrokes that they are so prone to poor serving—or, perhaps more pointedly, the ability to play services games with much variety. Court, a superb serve-and-volley player, would likely have admonished each player for never even studying this tactic.
It wasn’t easy, but at 6-5, Bencic fought off a break point and captured the set. But while she broke Ostapenko to start the second, only a fool would have favored Bencic to sprint to the finish line.
As service breaks flew by, as Ostapenko continued to drive furiously, the Latvian went up 5-2 and then served for the set in the next game. Again, inexplicably, Ostapenko forgot to bring in her homework, at 30-30 spraying an easy backhand wide and on the next point, double-faulting. More errors ensued—long forehands, netted backhands.
Serving at 5-5, 30-30, Ostapenko double-faulted and on the next point flagged the first shot of the rally—another makeable backhand—well past the baseline.
An attentive Bencic hung in rallies and looked to earn a high grade. Said Bencic, “I’m happy I didn’t panic.”
At 6-5, she commanded the court just well enough to give Ostapenko the chance to implode. Upon reaching match point, Bencic did what every student hopes for: she aced it.