A rollercoaster semifinal at the Adelaide International saw No.2 seed Belinda Bencic quell qualifier Coco Gauff 7-6(2), 6-7(4), 6-2 in two hours and 37 minutes despite missing a match point in the second set.
In a contest full of seesawing momentum shifts, the Swiss player had won the first set from 1-4 down and lost the second set from 4-1 up, having held a match point at 5-3. However, she made a strong recovery in the decider and this time did not loosen her grip to book her place in her 11th career final, and first since Moscow 2019. Bencic will face No.5 seed Iga Swiatek for the first time with the title on the line.
"I'm very proud of myself that I handled this match after all the ups and downs," said Bencic afterwards. "It's always a mix of relief and joy."
The result is the culmination of Bencic gradually rebuilding her form over the Australian swing. She had been open about struggling to find her game after undergoing hard quarantine ahead: after a three-set win over Lauren Davis in the first round of the Australian Open, Bencic told reporters, "I know how I can play, but I cannot show it."
This week, she has begun to show it. Tallying 33 winners to 31 unforced errors, Bencic's ability to take the ball early and redirect it from line to line was key to her win. The 23-year-old also proved difficult to out-manoeuvre thanks to her superb anticipation. On more than one occasion, she was able to predict the direction of a putative Gauff putaway to find the winner herself, and a pair of flashy passes hit while running back to retrieve a lob were crowd-pleasing highlights.
Afterwards, Bencic discussed what on-court confidence meant to her game.
"In the Australian Open, I felt like every ball I had to think about what I had to do to put it in court," she elaborated. "Like, technically and legs - totally off timing. That's what I call not confident.
"What I call confident is when you go the court and you think about where you're going to serve, where she's going to serve. You start thinking less about your game because you play the ball automatic. Then you're able to think about the tactics, the bigger things. That's what I call more confident."
Confidence, Bencic said, enabled her to play instinctively.
"Everything just happens automatically and you can really focus on tactics and mentality - you don't have to tell yourself to finish your forehand low to high so it goes in the court," she continued. "Your reactions are like instincts - you don't think about it. I've been playing tennis since I was three years old. You wake me up at 2am, I can still play the same type of movements. My brain knows what I have to do."
Both players would struggle with double faults, Bencic racking up 10 and Gauff 12, but it was the 16-year-old's that proved most costly. Gauff's second-set escape had been her most brilliant passage of play, a flurry of winners that included a confident smash to save match point. But she would drop serve in the first game of the final set with consecutive double faults, and never regained the momentum.
Though Gauff shone brightest with her back to the wall - even in the decider, she conjured her finest winners serving to stay in the match at 1-5 - a fifth consecutive three-set victory proved beyond her. Bencic, by contrast, was able to shake off the tension and disappointment of the second set to regain focus in the third.
"I told myself that I have to stay really calm," she said of her mindset. "I knew she's a big fighter. She always manages to come back from every score. I was prepared for that."
Though this was Bencic's first competitive meeting with Gauff, she was already familiar with the American teenager.
"I had a short hit with her in the Miami Open when she was even younger," Bencic recalled. "I was really impressed already then. Definitely, you could see that she's really not the average player."
Next up is another teenage star, Roland Garros champion Swiatek. Bencic, still the only player in the past decade to attain a Top 10 ranking before her 19th birthday, knows a thing or two about being a teenage prodigy herself.
"She has a different, little bit more unique game," she assessed Swiatek. It's always better to play a little bit different than playing like everyone else. It always makes it more tough for opponents. I practised with her here a couple of times, so I know what to expect. Hopefully I can just apply it and have a good day."