As recently as last July, Belinda Bencic was unable to hit a tennis ball, the result of left wrist surgery she’d had on May 3, 2017. Only in August did Bencic start to hit backhands, beginning five minutes a day with smaller racquets and soft balls. “The start was very hard because I had the surgery and then I had the cast, and I didn’t know if it worked,” said the 20-year-old Bencic. “I was nervous. Did it help, or was this the right step? I was doubting myself a lot.”
Ranked as high as number seven in the world less than two years ago, Bencic’s ranking last year plummeted (there had also been a back injury that derailed her for several months in 2016). Just after the US Open, it stood at 318. There came a long climb upwards, Bencic competing at smaller events in such nations as Russia, France, Thailand. By the beginning of this week, she’d climbed back to 78.
All of this pain and doubt couldn’t help but occupy Bencic’s mind in the wake of one of the biggest wins of her career, a 6-3, 7-5 victory over 2017 Australian runner-up, Venus Williams. “I don’t think I played a bad match,” said Williams. “She just played above and beyond. I just have to give her credit for that.”
A positive omen came at Bencic’s morning practice. For years, she had attempted but been unable to successfully hit the infamous tweener shot that’s become an intermittent tool in the arsenal of many a pro. But today, in her pre-match practice session, Bencic at last made one. Said Bencic, “I tried for so long. I actually gave up already, but today I tried again. Hit the frame and went in.”
But a tweener meant nothing compared to the series of crisp, deep and forceful shots Bencic cracked past Williams. The numbers speak their eloquence, Bencic striking 32 winners to just 12 unforced errors, well over the desired A-grade two-to-one ratio. Even more compelling was the way Bencic’s improved movement backed up her longstanding sharp strokes. Forehands and backhands were laced deep and through the middle – the latter often a particular form of kryptonite for Williams. Bencic also repeatedly struck a sharp forehand down-the-line, taking the ball early and powerfully.
The Swiss also held her nerve. Serving at 4-3, Bencic went down love-40, fought back to deuce, held two game points, fought off two break points – and then, at deuce again, rains came, triggering the closing of the roof and a 23-minute delay. In one of those quarks that make tennis like no other sport, as the roof closed, Bencic and Williams hit with one another.
Who would benefit most from the delay, the experienced veteran who looked severely under-tennised, or the young hopeful who closed out ’17 winning 28 of 31 matches – but had never won a set versus Williams in four prior matches?
As play resumed, Bencic struck a wide ace, a backhand down the line winner and broke Venus at love. The second began with four straight breaks, then progressed with six consecutive holds. Moments appeared when Bencic might break away, but as has been the case throughout her career, Williams willed herself through those challenging phases, most notably when she served at 3-4, 15-40 and made sure to strike big with two of her biggest shots: a forceful crosscourt backhand on the first point, a powerful serve on the second. Bencic shanked her next two returns. A year earlier at this same stage she’d lost to Serena Williams. “It’s really tough to play her,” Bencic said about Serena’s older sister. “You really have to be on the limit of your game. You have to come out with everything you have. I tried to do that today.”
With the second set nearing crunch-time, Bencic hung tough – not just tenaciously, but fluid, assertive, deeply interested. At 5-all, Bencic closed out the game with an ace. And with Williams serving at 5-6, 30-love, Bencic mixed up height, depth and angles – including an exceptionally sweet crosscourt forehand winner at 30-all – to earn a match point. Then: a down-the-line forehand. Untouchable.
Like her fellow Swiss, mentor figures such as Martina Hingis and Bencic’s recent Hopman Cup teammate, Roger Federer (who’s parents sat courtside for the Bencic match), there is a distinct brand of craftsmanship and artistry that Bencic brings to the game. There are the disciplined strokes, courtesy of Hingis’ mother, Melanie Molitor, who Bencic began to work with when she was four years old – strokes that at their best show the engagement of eyes, feet, body, mind. But there is also a certain brand of court sense, a spatial awareness of geometry, possibilities and precision. To be sure, Bencic at this point has a much narrower arsenal than the opportunistic Hingis or the rapture-inspiring Federer.
But to watch Bencic is to witness a still-raw jewel that could eventually sparkle. What more might there be? Will she learn to take advantage of the openings she creates and learn to strike angled volleys? Can her movement get even better? Far beyond those abstract questions, though, Bencic was simply elated to return to the arena. “It was a very, very long time when I was out,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to come back, so it means a lot.”