For those who may not have been following Naomi Osaka and Belinda Bencic's careers, or at the very least, that of Bencic's, may not have predicted Monday's Round of 16 outcome. But to those who have been following the Swiss ace’s career — and her track record against Osaka, the defending champion at Flushing Meadows — it may not have been a big surprise.
In the pair’s past four meetings ahead of this match, Bencic had won three — all between 2018 and 2019. The only time Osaka defeated her Swiss rival was in 2013, when the pair were both juniors, and still well in their teens.
Monday's match was always going to be a tough test for Osaka, but given the ease with which she dispatched Coco Gauff from the tournament, she should, at least theoretically, have been looking at simply continuing that momentum. In fact, the numbers indicated an Osaka victory; the World No 1 hit nine aces to Bencic’s none, and the Swiss committed six double faults, twice as many as her Japanese rival. But a closer look gives Osaka a barely positive winners-to-unforced-errors ratio at 26 to 21 — a +5 differential. On the other side of the net, Bencic hit 29 winners to 12 unforced errors, and that made all the difference.
Bencic has never dropped a set against Osaka on hard courts, and the Swiss kept that record going with a phenomenal 7-5, 6-4 win. Bencic starting with the firm declaration that she was in it to win. She reached deep and quick, with her fluid backhand, looking in consummate touch to bring up break point in the first game of the match. An early, inopportune double fault from Osaka saw Bencic break to open the match, and quickly consolidate her hold to take a 2-0 lead.
The Swiss was almost unassailable, and to her credit, found the proverbial ‘Goldilocks zone’ of power, shot placement, movement, and accuracy, and she used it to full effect and more. The 22-year-old’s shots simply got gutsier as the match went on, and she carefully constructed her points.
For her part, the top seed was not bad. Just as soon, and seemingly as easily as the Swiss took early control, Osaka wrested it back. As the Japanese ace levelled things in the first set, she also found her bearings in phenomenal fashion, holding to love to take a solid 5-4 lead, only for her brilliant forehand to be outclassed by Bencic’s own backhand placement.
Where Osaka had some stunning shot-making, Bencic had guile. Her backhand looked a fluid, match-winning weapon. A perfectly placed down the line backhand handed the Swiss a crucial break for 6-5, and she served, successfully this time, for the set. It was almost as if this was Bencic’s second chance, a lifeline of sorts, one she created for herself.
If anyone knows the power of a second chance, it’s Bencic. She was 17 when she last made the quarter-finals at the US Open, and has endured a difficult last few years. Over 2016, 2017 and 2018, the young ace — a former World No 7 — has seen injuries to her back, wrist (which required surgery), and foot as she continued her battle back up the rankings.
Bencic spent most of the last season playing lower-ranked tournaments as she built her way back up the rankings, but despite a late march and some titles at the Futures level, she still dropped out of the top 50.
But 2019 truly has been Bencic’s year of reckoning, and from being ranked World No 55 at the start of the season, the former top 10 has come a long way. With deep runs in the early hardcourt season and on clay — including a title for her as an unseeded entrant in Dubai — Bencic went into the US Open week knocking right on the door of the top 10 yet again.
Indeed, she displayed all of that tenacity and more in the second set. She appeared to be thinking ahead, anticipating each of Osaka’s shots with ease, and quickly broke her to take a 3-2 lead in what was almost a palpable seizing of control of the match. For her own part, Osaka — who had been part of a routine set of service holds with Bencic — could have selected her shots a bit better.
Osaka, who was forced to sit out Cincinnati with a knee injury and had her knee taped up and halfway through the second, called for her team to look at it. Although the 21-year-old had not appeared to be in physical pain during the match thus far, she looked distinctly uncomfortable, making it likely it hampered her play at least to some degree. By now in full control, Bencic sealed the second set in just under 40 minutes, and with it, the match, marking her third victory against Naomi Osaka in 2019.
Osaka, already a two-time Major winner, may not have been able to defend her title at Flushing Meadows, but with her stellar display of sportsmanship and support of rival Coco Gauff in her previous match, won more than a few new fans who will be itching for her to bounce back from what is only a minor blip.
Meanwhile, for Bencic, it has been a comeback that has been a long time coming.
Perhaps it seems a bit funny to describe it as a 'comeback' when the player is only 22 years old, but if you’ve been playing tennis since you were three, it certainly has been a long time.
Bencic will now play Donna Vekic, who pulled off a strong battle against Germany’s Julia Goerges to progress to the quarter-finals, while Osaka will lose her No 1 ranking to Ashleigh Barty at the end of the US Open.
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Updated Date: Sep 03, 2019 09:07:54 IST