INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Belinda Bencic is making a tricky game look easy at the moment, redirecting her big-swinging opponents’ best shots into the corners, conjuring defensive lobs and flicking reflex returns from inside the baseline.
“I’m trying not to think who is on the other side of the court,” she said.
But there is no ignoring the quality of her recent tennis victims. From Dubai to Indian Wells, Bencic has been taking on the best in the women’s game and emerging again and again with a broad smile on her face.
On Thursday, she ran her winning streak to 12 matches by defeating her sixth top-10 opponent in less than a month. On Tuesday she had routed Naomi Osaka, the new world No. 1, in little more than an hour at the BNP Paribas Open, but in Thursday’s quarterfinal, Bencic met with a great deal more resistance from No. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova before prevailing, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, in 2 hours 16 minutes.
It was a match of fluctuating quality but no shortage of bravura shotmaking in the breeze, Pliskova’s flat power against Bencic’s fast-twitch counterpunching.
“I think Belinda’s the best in the world at redirecting power, I really do,” said Mary Joe Fernandez, the ESPN analyst and a former champion at Indian Wells.
That is quite a statement, considering that women’s tennis is full of talented counterpunchers, including the reigning French Open champion, Simona Halep, and the reigning Wimbledon champion, Angelique Kerber, who will face Bencic in the semifinals after defeating Venus Williams, 7-6 (3), 6-3, on Thursday.
But Bencic, a Swiss extrovert who turned 22 on Sunday and is returning to the fore after injury, has long been considered one of the game’s most sparkling talents. She was taught to see the game in full by her father, Ivan, and also by Melanie Molitor, the mother and coach of Martina Hingis, the Swiss wunderkind who rose to No. 1 by treating a tennis court like a chessboard.
Switzerland’s tennis star-in-chief, Roger Federer, has played a supportive role in Bencic’s career of late, partnering with her in the Hopman Cup team event and sending encouraging messages.
“She’s worked a lot for this moment, and the big reward is coming now,” Federer said. “I got to know her at the Hopman Cup and tried to give her as much advice as I could. She’s got a different game and is in a different stage of her career. Hopefully I helped. But the credit is hers and her team’s.”
When Ivan Bencic first became interested in having his daughter play the game, Federer had not yet broken through to the elite level. Hingis was the Swiss player he watched and admired, and their families had more in common than an attraction to tennis. Molitor and Hingis had immigrated to Switzerland from the Slovakian side of the former Czechoslovakia. So had Ivan Bencic, whose family fled the country in 1968 after the Soviet invasion.
Ivan Bencic telephoned Molitor when Belinda was 5 years old and asked her to take a look at his daughter’s nascent game. Molitor was impressed enough to offer to help from time to time. It became a much more profound connection after Molitor started her own academy, and Hingis later added her own counsel to the mix.
Though Bencic has more natural power and a more potent serve than her mentor did in her prime, she shares the ability to read tennis tea leaves even in the midst of a fast-paced rally.
“She was helping me a lot,” Bencic said of Hingis, who retired in October 2017 as the world’s No. 1 doubles player.
At that stage, Bencic was still coming back from an operation on her left wrist. Though she is right handed, the pain had kept her from hitting her two-handed backhand effectively.
She had appeared to be on a fast train to the top after defeating Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, Serena Williams and Halep in 2015 at age 18, on her way to the Rogers Cup title in Toronto and to later reaching the top 10.
But her wrist injury changed that career arc, causing her to miss five months in 2017 and fall outside the top 300. She returned at low-level professional tournaments in Europe rather than use a protected ranking and return at the highest level.
Less than two years later, that looks like the right move. There have been some stumbles, but she has found her footing and is guaranteed to re-enter the top 20 on Monday.
“I played those small events and built my confidence back up with my ranking,” she said of 2017. “Because with the wrist, you never know if it’s going to be good or going to hold. You hear so many stories of someone needing a second wrist surgery and then another one, and it wasn’t great. So definitely the first tournaments, it’s always a test to see if you can keep up. I didn’t want to play a big tournament with all the people right away and have the comeback in the public eye. I definitely needed matches and confidence.”
She is getting both in large quantities now. She beat four top-10 players on her way to the title in Dubai last month: Aryna Sabalenka, Halep, Elina Svitolina and Petra Kvitova. She has now beaten Osaka and Pliskova in Indian Wells and, based on level of play, can be considered the favorite for the title.
This is a fascinating, power-shifting phase in women’s tennis. Osaka, 21, has been the player of the moment for the last six months, winning the singles titles at the 2018 United States Open and this year’s Australian Open.
But fresh threats to the new and fragile order continue to surface. Bianca Andreescu, an 18-year-old Canadian wild card, has reached the semifinals here and has a 25-3 record in tour-level matches this year.
Bencic is not emerging, of course. She is re-emerging, and though it could not have been easy to see players near her age — such as Osaka and Jelena Ostapenko, the surprise 2017 French Open champion — claim the biggest trophies, Bencic said that envy was not a driving force.
“It’s great that we have so many great players in our age group,” she said. “But it’s not like I’m thinking, ‘Ah, I’m much better than her, and she’s winning Grand Slams, and I’m not.’ I definitely don’t have this mind-set, because I feel like that person who wins a Grand Slam definitely deserves it. They must be doing something right. It’s only inspiring for me.”
To get her game right this year, Bencic decided to have her father return as her full-time coach for the first time since 2016.
“It’s definitely not a coincidence I’m playing the way I’m playing now,” she said.
She wanted her freedom in 2016, but believes that they are both on the same wavelength now. And when she was getting edgy against Halep in Dubai, she called her father onto the court for a coaching visit, and he told her to take a moment, look around and appreciate how far she had come.
Her fitness has also improved significantly, something she attributes to maturity and to her Slovakian fitness coach, Martin Hromkovic, a former soccer player who is also her boyfriend.
“For me, it works right now very well,” she said. “When we are doing the work, Martin is my coach, and I’m respecting that. But as well I am feeling the support so much, like he’s doing everything he can for me and sacrificing really a lot. So I’m super happy to have him by my side.”
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