NEW YORK, NY, USA - In the world of sports metaphors, tennis matches are often discussed with the same terminology used to describe warfare: two ‘warriors’ take the court to do ‘battle’ and ‘fight’ for a victory.
For Belinda Bencic, it’s always been a bit more like a game of chess.
Standing at 5’9” (1.75 m), Bencic isn’t the tallest, and the 22-year-old Swiss player freely admits that she’s not the most powerful player, either. But what she lacks in firepower, she makes up for in smart tactics and anticipation, to great success: at the US Open, the No.13 seed stunned defending champion Naomi Osaka in straight sets, 7-5, 6-4 to reach the quarterfinals.
It’s Bencic’s third victory over Osaka this year, and the second time she’s halted the World No.1’s title defense efforts after scoring a similar stunner at the BNP Paribas Open.
“Before the match, I didn't think it was different. After the match, it definitely felt different,” Bencic admitted in her post-match press conference when asked to compare the two victories. “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.”
The key, Bencic told press afterward, is her innate ability to read an opponent’s game and, in a split second, plan out one or two moves ahead.
“I think my game is very much on instinct,” Bencic explained. “You have to react to it in seconds. I don't know. It's maybe just a feeling inside me.
“It's not like I watch [Osaka’s] games and I see, like, ‘She's going crosscourt all the time’. It's just where she stands, the angle of the ball, how fast is it, how much spin is there. I think you need to decide all this in seconds.
“I think it's not the brain, but it's just instinct.”
Those instincts, which Bencic described tactically as ‘a bit like chess’ in her post-match interview, have been a part of the Swiss player’s game since the start of her career. Initially coached by her father, Ivan Bencic, and WTA Legend Martina Hingis’ mother Melanie Molitor, Bencic first broke through in 2014 when she reached the US Open quarterfinals as a 17-year-old.
“She was even more skilled and smarter on the court and playing more chess,” Bencic said of the comparison between her game and Hingis’. “I think I have a little bit less maybe talent and touch than her, but maybe a little bit more power.”
But Bencic’s head-turning rise ground to a halt as injuries plagued the Swiss player - most notably needing to have wrist surgery in 2017 and dropping from the Top 10 to outside the WTA’s Top 300 in the process.
“It's been a long way since then, for sure,” Bencic reflected. “People always think I'm a little bit older than I actually am, because I've been here since 16, 17.
“I think it was -- everyone expected [me] to go just up. 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.”
Indeed, this year has seen a finally-healthy-again Bencic cement her as a consistent threat in the Top 20 once more, with a run to the title at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. She took down four Top 10 players in a row - No.9 Aryna Sabalenka, No.2 Simona Halep, No.6 Elina Svitolina and No.4 Petra Kvitova - to claim her first Premier-level title since 2015. She’s continued to chip away at her ranking, currently sitting five spots shy of her career-high at No.12.
“Of course, there were times when you're injured you ever wonder if you can play at this level again,” she said. “Then I also believed if I'm going to get back and healthy, I can play on this level, because I proved it so many times. It was just about being consistent and if it was going to be enough.
“I think it helps when the belief is there, when you know you can be Top 10. So when you have been there, you know that your way is working. So I think that helped me a lot through these injuries.”
She added, “It's not about who can hit a better backhand or who can hit a better forehand. I think it's definitely about the mentality, how you go to the court, how you approach, if you have fear or if you're playing freely.”
Bencic continues her 2019 US Open run in the quarterfinals against good friend Donna Vekic, No.23 seed. Both players are seeking their first career Grand Slam semifinal.