Twenty-one years ago this month, a Swiss teenager won her first Australian Open title and began her reign at the top of women’s tennis, allowing people to believe that the small country of Switzerland could produce world-class tennis players. That was just a couple of months before Belinda Bencic was born.
On the first day of this year’s Australian Open, a day that saw the demise of nearly every American player who stepped onto the courts, the 20-year-old Bencic swiftly dismissed any hopes of another magical year Down Under for Venus Williams. Last year’s runner up, who had beaten Bencic the previous four times they had played, was unable to impose herself on this day. Bencic knocked her out to take her winning streak on the women’s tour to 16. She is undoubtedly having one of the best starts to the new year.
Earlier this month, Bencic teamed up with her “dream partner,” compatriot Roger Federer, to win the Hopman Cup victory in Perth over Germany.
Bencic, who like Federer speaks multiple languages – Slovak, Swiss German, German, English – credited the Hopman Cup win with boosting her confidence for the first Grand Slam of the year. In fact, Federer’s parents were present in her box throughout the match against Venus to cheer her on, a fact she gratefully acknowledged afterwards.
Like her Swiss predecessor Martina Hingis, Bencic was born to parents from the former Czechoslovakia. Her paternal grandparents fled to Switzerland during the Soviet invasion of 1968. Bencic’s father Ivan, a former hockey player, persuaded his friend, businessman Marcel Niederer, to invest money in his daughter’s tennis career when she was just six years old. The investment looks like it’s paid off.
Bencic started her training, at age seven, at the tennis academy of Hingis’s mother Melanie Molitor. Bencic’s game is comparable to that of Hingis too. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she relies not on power but on guile and an intelligent, all-court game.
In 2013, Bencic won the junior French Open and Wimbledon titles, and was named the ITF World Junior Champion. The following year she made her breakthrough on the WTA tour, reaching the quarter-finals of the US Open, beating two top-10 players on the way. She was named WTA Newcomer of the year. But it was in 2015 that she really announced her arrival on the big stage, by winning her first title at Eastbourne, and following it up with a huge victory at the Rogers Cup, where – unseeded – she beat Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, Serena Williams, and Simona Halep.
Unfortunately, thereafter, her career was plagued with injuries. She missed most of the season in 2016, and had to skip five months last year following surgery on her left wrist. When she finally returned to the tour at the end of 2017, she won back to back 125K series tournaments in Hua Hin, Taipei and another ITF title in Dubai, to climb back into the top 100. But the comeback wasn’t quite complete until this month in Australia.
A year ago, Bencic lost in the first round at the Australian Open to eventual winner Serena Williams. This year, when she drew Venus in the first round, a lot of people sympathised with her for her “bad luck.” Bencic, however, decided to change her luck. She saved five break points in the eighth game of the first set, before a rain delay caused play to be suspended. When the match resumed half an hour later, with the roof closed over Rod Laver Arena, Bencic was ready to take control. The unseeded, world number 78, player took out the American in straight sets, 6-3, 7-5.
Venus, who had a lot of points to defend from her appearance in last year’s final, was gracious in defeat after the match. “I don’t think I played a bad match,” she said. “She just played above and beyond.” More than anyone else, Venus will understand how special it is to return to the tour after a prolonged absence due to illness or injury. While the sentimental favourite may be out, another heartwarming story beckons. Perhaps the new year will finally allow Belinda Bencic to break out of Hingis’s shadow, and to fulfil the promise she made to the tennis world a few years ago.