Welcome to Memory Lawn, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the grass seasons of the past five years. Following our retrospective of the best of Birmingham, we move to Eastbourne on the south coast of England to cover the historic Nature Valley International, a tournament that has been an integral part of the grass swing since 1974. First up is an 18-year-old Belinda Bencic announcing her arrival in the big time with a stunning title run in 2015, culminating in a virtuoso final defeat of Agnieszka Radwanska.
HOW THEY GOT THERE: The first half of 2015 had fallen beneath expectations for both Agnieszka Radwanska and Belinda Bencic. Radwanska, a Top 5 mainstay for much of the previous three years, had slipped out of the Top 10 in May for the first time since 2011 following a desultory series of results: the Pole entered the grass swing off the back of a poor first-round exit at Roland Garros to Annika Beck, having reached only one semifinal to date in 2015 - at home in Katowice, losing to Camila Giorgi - and boasting a subpar 15-13 win-loss record.
The 18-year-old Bencic, meanwhile, was still considered one of the finest rising talents on tour - but after a meteoric 2014, in which the Swiss had rocketed from World No.212 to World No.33, she had made a net gain of a mere two places over the first five months of 2015. The dreaded 'sophomore slump' seemed to have come for Bencic, who had fallen in seven opening rounds and had compiled a losing 10-13 match record.
But on grass - long established as 2012 Wimbledon finalist Radwanska's favorite surface, and one which would become a happy hunting ground for Bencic - the pair had begun to come alive. Radwanska, fresh off a semifinal showing in Nottingham, hit her stride in Eastbourne, where she had lifted her first Tier II trophy in 2008: over her first four matches, the No.9 seed conceded more than two games in a set just once, speeding past Irina Falconi, No.8 seed Karolina Pliskova and Tsvetana Pironkova before dropping a second-set tiebreak to Sloane Stephens in the semifinals.
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Meanwhile, Bencic had opted to kick off her grass swing in 's-Hertogenbosch, reaching her second career final via saving three match points in a terrific quarterfinal triumph over Kristina Mladenovic. Having fallen to Giorgi, though, the teenager was still looking for a maiden title of her own - and doubtless had an eye on her erstwhile junior rival Ana Konjuh, the 17-year-old Croat who had become the first 1997-born player to lift a trophy, winning Nottingham in the same week. Just a fortnight later, the unseeded World No.31 gave herself another crack at becoming a champion after a run through the draw that had featured a 6-2, 6-2 rout of No.12 seed Madison Keys in the second round and a stellar 2-6, 6-0, 6-3 win over surging home favorite Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals - as well as two slices of luck in retirements from No.7 seed Eugenie Bouchard in the third round and No.2 seed Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals.
WHAT HAPPENED: Bencic had not won a set in either of her two previous finals, but under the watchful eye of childhood mentor and former World No.1 Martina Hingis rectified this in brilliant fashion. Both players hit the ground running, with no break points for either through the first six games, but it was the unseeded teenager who struck the first blow to move up 4-3, countering Radwanska's dropshots and defence with excellent improvisation of her own.
Increased aggression from the Pole got the break back immediately, but an undaunted Bencic essayed some fine passes and a lovely dropshot of her own en route to breaking again for 5-4, and the Swiss player served out the set with a booming crosscourt backhand on her second set point.
Radwanska's signature supreme touch in the forecourt would delight the crowd - and aid the 26-year-old to start turning the match around, leaping out to a 3-0 lead in the second set. The most riveting stretch of the match would follow: a five-game feast of courtcraft and shotmaking that saw a total of 13 deuces as the pair pitted their brains and instincts against each other. Bencic, whose anticipation in tracking down Radwanska's volleys and dropshots made the youngster seem like a second coming of Hingis at times, got the break back - but the former champion, who would strike 24 winners to just seven unforced errors in this set, kept her nose in front before breaking Bencic again for the set.
On paper, the deciding set seems anticlimactic - but in terms of quality, Radwanska faded only slightly. Rather, Bencic not only took her game to new heights - her sharp forehand angles and early returns all came together in a sustained run of form - but bypassed the mini-tussles that had characterized the first two sets by raising her game efficiently. The World No.31 took three out of her four break points in the final set - and consequently, scoreboard-wise, it was one-way traffic as she accelerated towards her maiden title, sealing it with a forehand winner on her first championship point.
The final stats sheet bears out the top-notch quality both players had displayed: Radwanska had found 48 winners to only 28 unforced errors, and had won 25 out of 42 net points while maintaining a 78% first serve percentage. Bencic's numbers were almost as impressive, but slightly more watertight: 39 winners to 23 unforced errors, 22 out of 28 victorious net points and a 77% first serve percentage.
WHAT THEY SAID: "I was very focused and really I played very free," assessed a delighted Bencic of her performance. "Of course I was disappointed I didn't close out the second set. I was also starting to get tired. It was a lot of running and long rallies. But then I started very focused. I did the 3‑0, so after that I relaxed a little bit and could close it out very good."
The 2013 Wimbledon girls' champion also affirmed her love of playing on the surface: "I'm so happy to play on the grass," she said. "I never feel really tired or not motivated - I'm really looking forward to Wimbledon."
A disappointed Radwanska, meanwhile, lamented the windy conditions on the British coast: "That makes every match 50-50, a lot of crazy shots and weird rallies... The ball didn't listen to me at all," she said. "It's just very frustrating that you can't really play your game because it's just impossible. Well, I think she was just using the wind better than me, I guess."
Nonetheless, she was able to take the positives from her grass results: "I think I had a lot of good matches, Nottingham and here. I think that's the main thing. I think I did the best preparation before Wimbledon, and I really played good tennis. So now just will see what happens in London."
WHAT IT MEANT: The 2015 grass swing would be an effective reset for both players. Radwanska arrested her slide out of the Top 10 in style, following her Nottingham semifinal and Eastbourne final with her third "Wimbledon semifinal showing to rebound straight back to World No.7 by the time she departed the UK.
A strong Asian swing, featuring titles in Tokyo and Tianjin and a semifinal run in Beijing, cemented what had previously seemed an unlikely qualification for the WTA Finals, setting the Pole up for the biggest title of her career there and the fifth of her six consecutive Top 10 year-end finishes.
Bencic, meanwhile, continued to go from strength to strength for much of the next year. Having become the youngest ever Eastbourne champion, and youngest WTA titlist at Premier level or equivalent since Caroline Wozniacki at New Haven 2008, the 18-year-old extended her winning streak to nine to debut in the second week of Wimbledon for the first time, ending the grass swing with a 14-3 record overall.
Two months later she put together an even more eyecatching title run in Toronto, dispatching six straight former Grand Slam champions or finalists, including Serena Williams in the semifinal, to hoist her second trophy. Appropriately, that week began with Bencic finishing what she had started against Eugenie Bouchard and Caroline Wozniacki, both of whom had retired trailing her in Eastbourne but would be defeated in completed matches in Canada.
A fifth career final followed in Tokyo, where Radwanska would take a 6-2, 6-2 revenge on the teenager, but Bencic's progress was sufficient to end the year at World No.14, a springboard for cracking the Top 10 the following February.