How long does it take to get out of the shadow of a famous compatriot? Several years, if the shadows are as large as those cast by Roger Federer and Martina Hingis.
Until Stan Wawrinka became a reliable threat at the Slams and a permanent member of the top 10, he could never quite escape the ‘Federer phantom’. Wherever Wawrinka went an invisible, seemingly irresistible force followed, which compelled people to ask him questions about his legendary countryman.
With Belinda Bencic the shadow has seemed even tougher to break out of, but part of that is her own doing. When she first started making a splash on the tour four years ago, she was often accompanied by Hingis at her tournaments. Bencic was partially coached by Hingis’ mother Melanie Molitor in the early days, and it didn’t take long for her to be branded as the new ‘Swiss Miss’.
Then when the injuries started piling up and her results nosedived, Bencic seemingly disappeared from the singles scene altogether – only to resurface in January every year, at the Hopman Cup. Federer and Bencic made for a dream team in the mixed gender competition, winning the title in both 2018 and 2019, but all that success had the peculiar effect of marginalizing Bencic’s presence even more.
Many believed she was just the secondary component of the ‘Federer and X’ team, and served only as a foil to Federer’s genius.
So it was surprising – and more than a little heart-warming – to see Bencic finally get back to her 2015 level of tennis this week in Dubai. The odds were heavily stacked against her but Bencic came through unscathed, in the process defeating four top 10 opponents in a row – Aryna Sabalenka, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina and Petra Kvitova.
Bencic played six matches in total and won them all, in sharply contrasting styles – in some matches she escaped by the skin of her teeth, and in some she was barely challenged. But through them all there was one thing that stood out: when Bencic’s game is on, there’s not much anyone can do to counter it.
The 21-year-old doesn’t have nearly as much power as the Kvitovas and Sabalenkas of this world, and she isn’t quite as quick as the Haleps and Svitolinas either. But what she does have – and what most others lack – is a relentless commitment to take the ball on the rise.
Bencic rarely backs off behind the baseline in neutral rallies, and hits more than her fair share of half volleys. She uses the pace of the incoming ball both with her return and her stock groundstrokes, taking time away from her opponents like very few can.
What’s even more remarkable is that she can effortlessly change direction while hitting on the up. That makes her down-the-line drives off both wings truly devastating; all of her opponents this week were left lunging in despair whenever the pattern of a crosscourt rally was broken up – often without warning.
The timing in her groundstrokes does remind you a bit of Hingis, but that’s where the comparison should stop. Hingis was all about cunning variations and carefully constructed chess-like points, while Bencic relies more on the modern template of hitting the ball out of the opponent’s reach with pace. Except that she doesn’t muscle her shots like the power hitters do; instead, she uses precise timing and placement to get instant – and more efficient – results.
However, anything that gives you quick and easy rewards is bound to involve a great deal of risk, and Bencic’s style of play is teeming with risk. While she showed in Dubai that she has the necessary hand skills to power through six matches in a row, her high-wire play makes it easy to understand why it has taken her so long to get back to her pre-injury level.
You need the precision of a surgeon and the focus of a sharpshooter to do what Bencic does. Even a small miscalculation can send the ball sailing high into the stands, and your chances of winning down into the drain.
A couple of her opponents this week – Sabalenka and Kvitova – are known for suffering wild mid-match fluctuations in their level of play, but it was Bencic who outdid them both in that regard. The Swiss was the one more prone to oscillating between the amazing and the atrocious, and she was the one who constantly needed to call her coach down for urgent crisis management.
The visuals weren’t very reassuring. Every time she followed a breathtakingly brilliant point by a head-scratchingly hideous one, she looked like a petulant child who had just had all of her toys taken away. It didn’t help that her designated ‘coach’ at the tournament was her father Ivan; at every one of her on-court coaching sessions, it looked like an indulgent father was trying to get his daughter to be disciplined and eat her vegetables.
That she still managed to recover every single time and eventually win the whole tournament makes this an even more impressive feat than her previous Premier 5 title, which came at the 2015 Rogers Cup. (Side note: even in that tournament she defeated four top 10 players, which makes you wonder whether she can only bring her best when faced with a murderer’s row of opponents).
Back in 2015 Bencic had the fearlessness and positivity of a newborn, so she could skate through on the basis of her game and adrenaline alone. But now, after three years in the wilderness, doubt and insecurity are her constant companions, and it takes more than just a unique game to win in those circumstances.
Bencic faced six match points against Sabalenka in the third round, and wasn’t playing anywhere close to her best (she made 13 double faults in that match). In the semi-final she was again on the brink of defeat; Svitolina served for the match at 5-4 in the decider. Both times Bencic found herself in a hole that was largely self-created, and both times it looked like she would pay the price of her negativity. But in those now-or-never moments, she somehow showed enough maturity to put her errors behind her and hang on long enough to grit out the win.
That harkens back to the early days of Federer and Hingis; they were both known for their whiny ways when things didn’t go their way, before eventually learning to control their emotions. But Federer and Hingis managed to do that over and over again, and win tournament after tournament. Bencic, so far, has only done that in one tournament.
There is clearly a long way to go for the 21-year-old. But the good news is that if she does manage to keep the negativity away, she will find it a whole lot easier to get the job done in the future.
What’s even better news is that Bencic’s refreshing game seems here to stay this time. She has successfully climbed out of one injury-addled abyss, so she now knows what it takes to find her footing even when everything seems lost. And the tennis world can only be enriched by the regular presence of a player as unique as her.
One last thing: this is a bold prediction, but it won’t be long before we stop dragging Federer and Hingis into every conversation about Bencic. She may have some long shadows around her, but she has shown this week that she’s good enough to jump out of them – and create her own striking identity.
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Updated Date: Feb 24, 2019 10:33:07 IST