NEW YORK, NY, USA - In a tense quarterfinal at the US Open, No.13 seed Belinda Bencic channeled her frustration into her tennis to overcome No.23 seed Donna Vekic 7-6(5), 6-3 and seal her debut appearance in the last four of a Grand Slam in one hour and 40 minutes.
Bencic came into today's match leading the head-to-head 2-1 - but Vekic had ousted her from one major already this year in the third round of Roland Garros, and a contest between the two friends and frequent practice partners both seeking to break new ground was rarely going to be straightforward. Ultimately, it was the Swiss player whose superior clutch play enabled her to squeeze through as she tallied eight aces and 20 winners to 21 unforced errors - guaranteeing a return to the Top 10 for the first time since June 2016 in the process.
"I worked hard for this - it's not like I never imagined I could do this," said Bencic afterwards. Throughout the former junior World No.1's years of injury woes, it was the feeling of triumph in matches like this that had kept her going: "Who doesn't love wins?" she asked. "I mean, it's the best feeling in the world. I think that's why we tennis players play. For sure when you lose, it's the worst feeling. It's very bitter... What I love most is definitely the competition, these type of matches. Yeah, that feeling right after you do the match point is the nicest one."
A cagy opening set saw Bencic and Vekic protecting their own sides of the court: though both only landed around half of their first serves, both also won over 80% of the points behind it. Consequently, neither would face a break point through the first eight games.
Nonetheless, the tension was building - and for Bencic, it bubbled over in the ninth game. Visibly irritated at having to wait for tardy members of the crowd to take their seats, the 22-year-old promptly coughed up two double faults in a tetchy game, sending a backhand long to concede the break.
But to her credit, Bencic didn't allow her mood to be clouded for long: taking her feelings out on her forehand, the 2014 quarterfinalist went after her returns with the most gusto yet to break back immediately. A valiant Vekic would save three set points - one serving at 5-6 and two more in the apt dénouement of a tiebreak - with two one-two punches and a third ace - but Bencic would not be denied on her fourth as the Croat sent a forehand long.
"I think we played a very good match with high-quality rallies," Bencic assessed the contest afterwards. "It was definitely not easy... I stayed calm in the important moments."
"It was small points that changed the whole match... I tried to put a little bit more variation in the game. I tried to play a little bit smarter."
The second set was similarly tight, but with the first set under her belt it was Bencic who was able to swing more freely in the most crucial moments. The former World No.7 was able to overcome both her own oscillations - three double faults in the second game were counterbalanced by a drive volley winner and an ace to hold - and to use her superior repertoire from the baseline to gradually dissect her opponent.
There were slices of luck involved, too - a backhand heading into the tramlines off a superb Vekic lob bounced twice on the net cord before dropping in, and a desperate stab return that turned into a dropshot return - but as the set progressed, Bencic would go from strength to strength.
Vekic fended off two break points in the sixth game, but the Dubai champion turned around to reel off eight straight points, and 12 of the next 14, to move up 5-3, maintaining an 88% winning percentage behond her first serve and redirecting the ball effortlessly around the court to get Vekic on the run.
The St Petersburg and Nottingham finalist has scored three victories from match point down in 2019, more than any other player - including in the previous round against Julia Goerges - and once again, she produced some brilliance with her back to the wall. Serving to stay alive, Vekic saved two match points with bold forehand winners. It was too little, too late though: as Bencic continued to pile on the pressure to carve out a third she was rewarded as Vekic sent another forehand into the tramlines, her 27th unforced error compatred to 28 winners.
After being beset for several years by multiple injuries that derailed her rise as a teenage prodigy, a Grand Slam semifinal has been a long time coming for Bencic - and she'll get the opportunity to go a step further against either No.15 seed Bianca Andreescu or No.25 seed Elise Mertens.
The last quarterfinal is a match that Bencic is excited about as a fan, not just a competitor. "I will definitely watch their match tonight," she confirmed. "I think it will be an entertaining match with lots of long rallies. For sure, Andreescu has a lot of variation in her game. Mertens is more like a wall-type of game. She's a great counterpuncher. Definitely I'm very curious who is going to win and adapt to the opponent in the semifinals."