Welcome back to Clay Chronicles, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the clay seasons of the past five years. After recapping Charleston's classics and Stuttgart's standards, our retrospective now heads to Madrid, Spain to recount some of the best matches from recent editions of the Mutua Madrid Open. Belinda Bencic’s meeting with Svetlana Kuznetsova from 2019 concludes our series.
2015: Serena survives match points against Azarenka
2016: Cibulkova reignites epic Radwanska rivalry
2017: Halep halts rising Mladenovic in title defense
2018: Bertens battles back to stop resurgent Sharapova
HOW THEY GOT THERE: After falling out of the Top 20 of the WTA Rankings in 2016, Belinda Bencic was in the midst of her best run of form in three years and back established among the game’s upper echelons, having broken back into this elite group in March.
A run to the semifinals of Hobart hinted at the strong start she would enjoy to 2019, which was highlighted by stunning success in Dubai, where four straight three-set victories over Top 10 opponents saw her leap more than 20 places upwards in the rankings.
That was followed by a semifinal at Indian Wells and a quarterfinal in Charleston, although her season was in danger of stalling after losing two of her first three matches on clay upon her return to Europe in Lugano and Stuttgart. Some momentum was clawed back, meanwhile, with a victory over Alison Van Uytvanck in round one.
Kuznetsova, meanwhile, had fallen out of the Top 100 for the first time in close to two decades at the end of 2018 and spent the first half of 2019 fighting injury, preventing her from playing competitively until Lugano in April.
Although he had lost three of her seven matches heading into Madrid, there were plenty of positive signings that her form was returning, including a straight-sets victory over World No.29 Mihaela Buzarnescu, and these were confirmed as she overcame Arnya Sabalenka, 7-5, 6-4, in the first round in Madrid – her first clay win over a Top 10 player since beating Maria Sharapova in the Spanish capital four years previous.
WHAT HAPPENED: Bencic was the quicker player out of the blocks, forcing a couple of early break points, and though those were missed, her big hitting allowed her to edge her way into the ascendancy by breaking the Russian at the next opportunity.
Kuznetsova began to settle as the midpoint of the opening set arrived, broke back and established a 5-4 advantage as her serve began to find its rhythm. When asked to serve to stay in the set, Bencic responded with two confident holds to set up a tiebreak.
The decider initially swung in favor of Kuznetsova, who established a 3-1 advantage, but thereafter it was all Bencic as she won six of the following seven points, including three against the serve, to charge into the ascendancy.
Bencic had looked assured on serve throughout the opening set but immediately in the second, Kuznetsova went about putting doubts into her mind. The 33-year-old raced into a 0-40 lead in the opening game, setting the tone for the 37-minute frame that was to follow. Although the Swiss clawed two points back, the break followed.
Another followed in the fifth game, and while Kuznetsova leaked one of those immediately, her return game was in the groove as she snatched the next to love as Bencic claimed only eight points from 19 first serves that found their mark.
The opening game of the deciding set proved to be pivotal. Bencic sought to play in a more conservative manner at the outset but critically fought off a break point that would have seen her fall immediately behind. Instead, she made the first move by pinching the Kuznetsova serve to 30.
This began a thrilling period in which the players exchanged five breaks in succession, ending with Bencic taking the sixth game to love. It proved the catalyst for Bencic to find her best level of aggressive tennis in the closing stages as she chalked up eight successive points on her serve to finally fend off the challenge of her two-time Grand Slam winning opponent, sealing her 23rd victory of the year as Kuznetsova netted after two hours and nine minutes of play.
WHAT IT MEANT: For Bencic, this victory was a catalyst to regaining her best level after a recent wobble. Kateryna Kozlova was comfortably dispatched in the last 16 before she scored a career-best victory over erstwhile World No.1 Naomi Osaka in the quarters. Although she pushed Simona Halep all the way in the semis, the Romanian proved too strong for her.
Over the longer term, it was another step to career high ranking of World No.4, which was attained in February 2020, a particularly important marker in Bencic’s career given both the pressure of living up to her early hype after a rapid rise into the Top 10 and also long periods battling foot and wrist injuries.
This was achieved by reaching the third round at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, making the final of Mallorca and winning in Moscow, but it was at the US Open, where she reached the semifinals before finally being unseated by eventual champion Bianca Andreescu, that proved to be the zenith of her 2019 campaign.
Steady performances at the beginning of 2020 saw her star continue to rise, including another victory over Kuznetsova, this time in St Petersburg, although her last outing was also against the Russian and ended in defeat in Doha.
The veteran Russian, meanwhile, suffered something of a slump after this loss, losing her next three matches, including the first round at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. She burst back into life, however, in the North American hard court swing, making the last 16 in Toronto and then making the final in Cincinnati, allowing her to climb to World No.63 when she had flirted with falling out of the Top 200.
Although her results at the beginning of 2020 have been mixed, she continues to prove that she is capable of excellence, having reached the semis in Doha, where she won three straight-sets victories and was given one walkover before Sabalenka got the better of her.