By Christopher Clarey
At age 17, when Belinda Bencic reached the quarterfinals at the 2014 U.S. Open with a precociously sophisticated game, it looked as if deeper runs were right around the corner.
Though Bencic has a clear understanding of geometry on court, tennis success is an inexact science.
Plenty can knock a young prodigy back, which is a good reason to fight the urge to expect the 15-year-old Coco Gauff to zoom straight to the top. Bencic is wiser for having waited.
“People tend to think I’m older than I actually am,” she said.
She is 22 now, no longer the prodigy from Switzerland but in the midst of fulfilling her promise. Her 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory over her friend Donna Vekic on Wednesday put her into the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time.
“You take it for granted, and then when you can’t play, you miss it so much,” Bencic said. “I’m enjoying my tennis so much now.”
Bencic, the No. 13 seed who will soon be back in the world’s top 10, will next face 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu, who is a prodigy herself. Andreescu came back from a first-set loss to defeat Elise Mertens of Belgium, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, on Wednesday night.
Neither Bencic nor Andreescu has been to a Grand Slam singles final. It will be a matter of who can adjust to novelty best.
“I think at this point anyone can win the tournament,” said Vekic, a 23-year-old from Croatia who was once a teenage overachiever herself. She has improved her footwork and consistency under her coach, Torben Beltz, and she pushed Bencic very hard in her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Vekic had the most powerful weapon of the match — her big, whipping forehand.
But Bencic knows better than most how to defuse power, and though Vekic had defeated her on clay this season at the French Open, Bencic is at her best on true-bouncing hard courts where she can lock in her timing.
The biggest change in her game of late has been the serve. Fitter and stronger in the lower body, she is generating new power and penetration. She struck seven aces against Vekic and won 84% of her first-serve points.
The serve is also what separates Bencic’s game from that of her longtime mentor, Martina Hingis, who won five Grand Slam singles titles in her teens.
Bencic, whose game was developed by Hingis’ mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, believes that she lacks some of Hingis’ chess-master qualities but possesses more power — a vital component to success in this era.
Above all, she counters other players’ power effectively, be it in the backcourt or the forecourt, and she is now the first Swiss woman since Hingis to reach the final four at the U.S. Open.
“I worked hard for this,” Bencic said. “It’s not like I never imagined I could do this. Still, I stayed in the moment, a very nice feeling.”