INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - The Class of ‘97 is ready to take center stage as World No.1 Naomi Osaka and No.23 seed Belinda Bencic take the court in a fascinating fourth-round clash a the BNP Paribas Open.
Both born in 1997, Osaka and Bencic are two of the youngest players left in the draw - along with on-the-rise Canadian Bianca Andreescu, 18, Czech teen Marketa Vondrousova, 19, and the red-hot Aryna Sabalenka, 20.
The resurgent Swiss player edged past Ekaterina Alexandrova in two sets to reach the fourth round, extending her current winning streak to 10 victories in a row after lifting the trophy in Dubai and recording back-to-back Fed Cup wins. Meanwhile, Osaka had to face down an in-form Danielle Collins, fresh from a semifinal run at the Australian Open, and prevailed in straight sets to advance to her battle with Bencic.
While Osaka and Bencic have yet to meet in a tour-level match, the pair are familiar foes dating back to their Junior days. Their latest clash came at the Hopman Cup just over a year ago - Bencic won that one over a No.70-ranked Osaka in straight sets, 7-5, 6-3, en route to lifting the trophy alongside Roger Federer.
Osaka told press that she will look to that match for lessons, but she’s also the first to admit that a lot has changed for both players since that clash.
In photos: The Class of 1997's Tour takeover
“I remember I most recently played her at Hopman Cup. I lost that match,” Osaka recalled. “I think that's really amazing, the things that she's done and the fact that she was able to come
back from her injury and still play at a really top level. I know we both really want to win this next match.
“The last time we played, I hit too many unforced errors. But that was in the beginning of 2018 when you guys didn't know who I was,” she added with a laugh.
Indeed, since that match Osaka has gone on to lift three trophies, two of them Grand Slams - the BNP Paribas Open, the US Open and the Australian Open - and risen to WTA World No.1. And Bencic has successfully navigated her injury comeback, reaching a final in Luxembourg from qualifying and claiming her second career title at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships earlier this year.
But although their 2018 battle was their most recent clash, their only professional meeting came at an ITF 25K in Pelham, Alabama… way back in 2013. The Japanese played lights out tennis to win in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3.
Despite taking place more than six years ago, Osaka recalled their match vividly.
“I remember I didn't eat that entire day,” she told press in Indian Wells. “So I just went onto the court, and I just decided to hit everything, and luckily it went in, and I think that's how I won, to be honest.
“She was just really, like, shocked, I think, because we were around the same age, but I didn't really play Juniors, so nobody really knew who I was. She was, like, a really big Junior star. She still is a star. That's how I tell that story,” she added with a laugh.
While Osaka is gunning for her career-first title defense, Bencic is simply eager to take this chance to test her tennis against one of the best players in the game.
“It’s definitely a big opportunity,” Bencic admitted. “You know, I always like to play on the big courts, I like to play the big players. I really enjoy that, and that's what I work for… I'm just super happy to be on the big court at 6:00 p.m..
“We try to push each other… I think we are all, like, different players, but still I think the '97 generation, it's so strong,” Bencic added. “And I think always one of us is doing well. Sometimes the success, like, everybody has their own timing.
“So sometimes it takes longer; sometimes it takes faster.”
Osaka and Bencic will face each other tomorrow on Stadium 2 in the first match of the night session for a spot in the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open.