Bencic back in business

 - Alix Ramsay

The Swiss defeats Naomi Osaka and reaches the US Open quarter-finals. Beli is back.

Belinda Bencic fist pumping after her fourth round match at the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

It seems ridiculous to be saying this but at last Belinda Bencic is back. After four years of injury woes, she is finally fit and firing on all cylinders, playing a near-perfect match to beat Naomi Osaka and reach the US Open quarter-finals.

Why does this sound ridiculous?

Because Bencic is only 22 years old; it does not seem possible that one so young and with a career so new could have missed so many years already. But thanks to wrist, back and leg problems, miss them she did but now she is back on her happiest hunting ground: Flushing Meadows.

Belinda Bencic defeats Naomi Osaka in the fourth round of the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

“People think I'm a little bit older“

It was here in 2014 that Bencic reached her first Grand Slam quarter-final, back in the days when she was the best thing to happen to women’s tennis in Switzerland since Martina Hingis. In fact, back then, she was the youngest Swiss since Hingis to get so far (Hingis went on to win the title when she got to the last eight in 1997 when she was just a few days shy of her 17th birthday).

Not only that, but Bencic was a product of the same training philosophy as Hingis – Bencic worked with Hingis’s mother, Melanie Molitor, during her teenage years.

Just the year before in 2013, Bencic had been mopping up junior titles to a band playing, including the junior Roland Garros and junior Wimbledon crowns, but now she was ready to take on the grown-up world. And that it is when it all started to go wrong. 

By the end of her first full season on the WTA Tour in 2015, she was struggling with the first of her many injuries. It began with leg and hand problems, progressed to a serious back issue the following spring and then, in 2017, she needed surgery to repair her left wrist. 

“People always think I'm a little bit older than I actually am, because I've been here since 16, 17,” she said. “I think definitely it was a good time. I learned so many things. I think everyone expected [me] to go just up [in the rankings when I was younger]. That's not how tennis goes. I think all true athletes have to overcome obstacles, injuries, just tough times. I think it made me a stronger person, better player. I hope it's going to be like this.”

All smile for Belinda Bencic at the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

It definitely felt different

The path back has been long and difficult but she has stuck to her task. Now, after three successive third round finishes at the 2019 Grand Slam events, she is finally getting her reward – that ticket to the quarter-finals in New York. Her win over Osaka was her third in four meetings but this time it felt very, very different.

“Before the match, I didn't think it was different,” Bencic said. “After the match, it definitely felt different. I just came with the same mentality like I played her before and just really focused on the game and not about the hype or the occasion, the stadium and the round.

“After the match, it feels definitely different. It feels like this was the most important one.”

A year ago, Osaka was inconsolable

When Osaka defeated Coco Gauff in the previous round, she felt that she was more focused and concentrated than she had been since she won the Australian Open in January. For Bencic to beat the defending champion, then, was going to be anything but straight forward. And once Osaka had found her range (it took two games), she was happily leathering winners to the delight of the crowd.

A year ago, Osaka was inconsolable after the final as more than 23,000 people booed on the Arthur Ashe Stadium. She had just beaten Serena Williams in a highly contentious match and the New Yorkers were not happy.

Coming back this time, she won over the locals by the way she treated the 15-year-old Gauff, praising her and her team and encouraging the teenager to join in with the on-court interview after the match. Now she was a home-town heroine; now she was the crowd’s darling.

Naomi Osaka reacting during her fourth round macth at the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Bencic, then, was playing the world No.1 and the crowd. But she took one look at the challenge in front of her and beat Osaka at her own game. If Osaka was thumping clean winners at will, Bencic was doing likewise, hitting 29 winners to Osaka’s 26. She was matching the defending champion stroke for stroke but in two key areas, she was winning outright: service returns and unforced errors (or lack thereof). In 87 minutes of ferocious hitting, Bencic made only 12 errors to Osaka’s 21. In a match of such tight margins, those numbers make all the difference.

Next opponent: her friend Donna Vekic

Now Bencic has it all to do again against Donna Vekic, her friend and regular practice partner. Vekic, too has had her trials and tribulations in the last few years and she, too, wants to seize the moment that she waited for for so long.

“It means a lot, because she was also very good with 16, 17, won her first WTA title,” Bencic said.

“Then it was the pressure and some injuries, some difficult times. Now we're both back. It feels very nice. I'm very happy for her. But definitely I want to win. But still I think it will be great that one of us will be in semi-final.”

We will discover which of them can reach their first Grand Slam semi-final on Wednesday.