Six years ago, a polished 18-year-old from Switzerland stunned Serena Williams in the Toronto semifinals and went on to win her first WTA 1000 title. She finished the year ranked No.14 and seemed poised to become a force.
Heading into Saturday’s gold medal match at the Tokyo Olympics, Belinda Bencic had yet to surpass that teenage achievement. If it seems to the casual observer that she’s been playing tennis forever, how do you think she feels?
Bencic underwent wrist surgery in 2017, missed five months and saw her ranking plummet to No.318. But she persevered and now, at the age of 24, she’s posted the achievement of a lifetime.
Bencic, with her signature risk-reward calculus, defeated Marketa Vondrousova 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 in a wonderfully taut match that consumed exactly 2 hours, 30 minutes. On Sunday, she has an opportunity to win a second gold when she and Viktorija Golubic face Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic in the doubles final.
On match point, when Vondrousova’s lunging backhand service return sailed long, Bencic collapsed on the baseline, her body wracked by sobs of joy. She’s the ninth woman in modern tennis to win a singles gold, joining Stefanie Graf, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin, Venus and Serena Williams, Elena Dementieva and Monica Puig.
Both Dementieva, now retired, and Puig – recovering from shoulder surgery – said that Olympic gold meant more to them than any major title. To some, that sounded dangerously close to a rationalization. But do the math:
There are typically four opportunities each year to win a major, and only one chance every four years for the Olympics. So, 16 major titles every four years, versus one Olympic gold.
Bencic’s voice, quavering in her on-court interview, went off into a higher register when asked about the possibility of winning two gold medals.
“I mean, you know, I will try again,” she said through laughter. “I will play like it’s my last match of my career. You know, this tournament, it’s …”
And Bencic paused, realizing she had fallen into pro forma athletic interview-speak. She smiled and, speaking swiftly, launched into a correction.
“For me,” Bencic said, “it’s not `this tournament,’ it’s the freaking Olympic Games.”
Her eyes widened, she looked at the interviewer and apologized for her language.
“I’m sorry,” Bencic said. “For me, this is the biggest thing ever for an athlete, so I cannot believe I have two medals and one of them is gold, and one of them is to be decided.”
Cynics will point out Bencic was fortunate that No.1 Ashleigh Barty, No.3 Aryna Sabalenka, No.7 Garbiñe Muguruza and No.10 Petra Kvitova – all potential opponents in her top-half of the draw – were eliminated by someone else. Still, Bencic beat the two reigning French Open finalists, Krejcikova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and a 2019 runner-up in Vondrousova.
A win in doubles would put Bencic into an elite club; she’d become only the fourth woman to win both singles and doubles gold in the same Olympiad, joining Helen Wills (Paris 1924), Venus (Sydney 2000) and Serena (London 2012).
Switzerland has a grand tradition in tennis. Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and Martina Hingis all won multiple majors. But never singles gold. Bencic profiles more like Marc Rosset, the 1992 gold medal singles for Switzerland. He never won a Grand Slam singles title, but in Barcelona he found a way to beat Jim Courier and Goran Ivanisevic, among others.
Bencic earned Switzerland’s second gold of the Tokyo Games, along with mountain biker Jolanda Neff.
Both Vondrousova and Bencic are former junior World No.1s. Bencic won the 2013 French Open and Wimbledon events as a junior and, through the years, has grown into a savvy player. Throughout the match, in what appeared to be a deliberate strategy – applying cream to her hands and arranging her towels – she kept Vondrousova waiting to serve on the baseline.
With the Czech player about to serve a pivotal game at 3-4 in the third set, Bencic chose to call a medical timeout so a trainer could address what appeared to be a blister on the big toe of her right foot.
“This is called icing the kicker,” NBC analyst Rennae Stubbs said, using a football term.
Broadcast partner Mary Carillo went a step further: “Feels like bad form.”
Sure enough, Vondrousova – given all that time to ponder her situation – lost the game. At love.
Bencic arrived at Melanie Molitor’s tennis academy at the age of 3. By the time she was 6, she was training daily with Molitor, who had groomed another Swiss player, her daughter, Martina Hingis.
Bencic was born in 1997, the same year Hingis won the US Open at the age of 16. Hingis beat Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in the quarterfinals and Lindsay Davenport in the semifinals, then beat Venus Williams in the final.
It felt like a full-circle moment in 2014 when a 17-year-old Bencic became the youngest US Open quarterfinalist – since Hingis.
Saturday, finally, Bencic found some closure.
“I mean, I don’t know what to say,” she said. “I mean, it’s amazing. I cannot really believe it right now. I just don’t get it yet.”
At last, she has delivered on all that promise, and reached the height so long predicted for her.
“I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry,” Bencic said. “I didn’t think it would be possible. I was fighting for my life, and it worked out.
“I cannot believe it worked out.”