MADRID, Spain - Belinda Bencic may have won the Roland Garros girls' title in 2013, but the 22-year-old wants you to know she's still finding her clay legs.
The Swiss star began her 2019 clay season with modest goals: she just wanted to win one round per tournament. Now she's in the semifinals of the Mutua Madrid Open.
"I have no points to defend," Bencic said last month at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart. "So, it’s really relaxing for me and I can only go up with the points with the ranking."
Now ranked No.18, Bencic can rise as high as No.11 if she wins her second title of the season in Madrid. To do it, the Swiss will have to go through two of the three toughest outs on clay. She's set to face reigning Roland Garros champion Simona Halep in the semifinals, with either Kiki Bertens or Sloane Stephens awaiting in the final. That's a tough road for a player who regularly curses the clay.
"It's amazing because after every shot I miss on clay I'm like augh, I hate this surface!" Bencic told WTA Insider this week in Madrid. "The bad bounce, the slice, the skidding, I get really pissed about it.
"I think I'm getting more comfortable. It helped that I started to get some matches in because for three years I didn't play on this surface, so it's definitely different.
"Now I feel comfortable. I don't think about my movement. It comes more automatically."
Before Charleston this year, Bencic had played just three clay matches since the end of the 2015 season due to injury. Now playing her first full clay season in four years, Bencic has made the quarterfinals or better at two of her three clay events.
"I still think it's not going to be my favorite surface," Bencic told WTA Insider. "It's good to keep the expectations low and just have it as a positive.
In Madrid, Bencic has not only strung good wins together, but she's tallied meaningful wins against two particularly tough opponents, 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, digging out a 7-6, 2-6, 6-4 win in the second round, and then a comeback win over No.1 Naomi Osaka, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 in the quarterfinals. With her win over Osaka, Bencic is now 5-0 against Top 5 opponents in 2019.
It's almost as if Bencic is finally believing she can do damage on clay.
"I actually grew up on clay," Bencic said in Stuttgart. "I was playing on clay and in juniors, I don’t know, I just didn’t think about it so much then. For sure, it’s a little bit different game with the juniors because it’s not so many rallies.
Bencic's frustration with clay isn't just mental. With her gamestyle, which requires perfect timing and footwork to take the ball on the rise, the variables on clay are genuinely detrimental to her game.
"I feel like naturally my game or the movements of my steps is a little bit different from all the other players. So I feel it’s different to slide for me. It’s not very natural. Also I feel like my game doesn’t have so much impact or advantage on clay. [The ball] doesn’t go so much.
"I don’t think that the bad bounce is the biggest part [of my discomfort] because on grass sometimes it can be similar. Mostly it is because the ball is better for the players who play a lot of spin. You cannot block the ball as much on clay and I like to block my returns and play it fast.
"I feel like I can use some more variety on the clay as well, but because I play open stance on both sides and I can’t slide with my left leg, then it’s a little bit of a problem.
"But sometimes I figure it out, sometimes not," she said, laughing.
As so many top players have proven over these recent years, the quality of your game dictates the result, not the surface. The two winners of the tour's biggest clay title so far, Petra Kvitova and Madison Keys, regularly voice their discomfort on clay. Jelena Ostapenko blasted her way through Halep to win Roland Garros. Maria Sharapova transformed herself into a clay-court maven. There's no reason to think Bencic can't do the same.
"I feel I can definitely play. I want to improve. I think it also made a difference because I didn’t play the last three years, I didn’t have a clay season. So, I was a little bit scared to go back on it because I didn’t feel used to it.
"But now after playing two tournaments, and this is my third tournament, I feel like I’m improving."