MELBOURNE, Australia - No.6 seed Belinda Bencic overcame a strong challenge from former junior rival and 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, ousting the Latvian, 7-5, 7-5 to reach the Australian Open third round.
"This is exactly what I expected, this kind of match," she said in her post-win press conference. "It's three games how she's playing really great and then three games a little bit more unforced errors. So I think with her it was totally normal and I was kind of expecting this.
"I'm happy I didn't panic when things weren't going my way."
Bencic is fresh off a run to the US Open semifinals, and withstood a match filled with wild momentum swings to ultimately emerge victorious after one hour and 41 minutes on Margaret Court Arena.
Both born in 1997, Bencic and Ostapenko share a long history, playing one another when they were as young as 10 years old. The pair went each went on to win junior major titles, and it was the Latvian who was the first of her generation to achieve Grand Slam glory on a senior level at the 2017 French Open.
Though Ostapenko won their most recent meeting at the 2018 BNP Paribas Open and ended last season with her third career title at the BGL BNP Paribas Luxembourg Open, Bencic enjoyed a career renaissance in 2019, starting with a second career Premier 5 crown at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. The former World No.7 matched her career-high ranking after semifinal runs in Indian Wells and the US Open - her first at a major tournament.
Bencic opened play on Day 4 of the Happy Slam in a form worth smiling about, taking the first three games to edge ahead a double break. Ostapenko, who struggled to find her range on serve and groundstrokes to start, settled impressively to win the next four games, foreshadowing the momentum swings that would define the opening set.
"I think it's just really difficult. You just can't get too frustrated, and you have to accept that she's gonna play amazing at times and have great rallies even if you kind of deserve to win this point, but she's just gonna hit an amazing winner from this.
"Sometimes, it's a little bit...not logical or a little bit unfair, you might think. But you just have to keep going every point and try to put every ball back, because also she's going to give you a few. So kind of take advantage from those little opportunities you have."
The Swiss youngster rallied to find herself serving for the set, only for three more service breaks to unfold and for Ostapenko to threaten a fourth and force a tie-break. Bencic saved the break point and clinched the set on her second opportunity with the help of a confident forehand winner.
While second set began with another break from Bencic, Ostapenko caught fire once more, striking an ace to move ahead 5-2. Twice two points from a deciding set, Bencic nonetheless managed one last momentum swing, winning the final five games to earn the win in straight sets.
"It's kind of a balance between those two, not giving her my unforced errors, as well, but also trying to be aggressive and putting pressure on her.
"I didn't do that too well until 2-5, I feel like, and then I started to get a little bit more loose and a little bit more aggressive. I feel like that worked well."
The stats show 16 winners and 22 unforced errors from Bencic, while Ostapenko was unsurprisingly more aggressive throughout, with 36 winners and 37 unforced errors of her own. Ostapenko's serve proved most problematic with nine double faults - one miss in particular causing a wry smile - and a 54% first serve percentage, giving Bencic the opportunity to make use of her strong returns and win 77% of points played on her rival's second serve.
"I feel like the first-round match was a typical first-round match, a little bit shaky and on and off. I feel like I played better today.
"In practice you can feel which level you are and how you're feeling. So I feel like I'm getting better and better with matches and with time. So I feel like it's going into the good direction."
Up next for the Swiss star is either No.28 seed and Miami Open semifinalist is Anett Kontaveit or Sara Sorribes Tormo.