Indian Wells 2019: No stopping Belinda Bencic; beats Pliskova for sixth top-10 win in a month
Belinda Bencic is through to the semi-finals of the Indian Wells tournament
The young Swiss Belinda Bencic celebrated her 22nd birthday just this week, and yet to see her tennis and her results over the last month, in Dubai and now in Indian Wells, she has looked every inch the composed, confident top-10 player that she has been beating with remarkably regularity.
Indeed, with her quarter-final win over former No1 Karolina Pliskova, the No5 seed at the BNP Paribas Open, Bencic clocked up her sixth win over top-10 opposition this year, and four of those were top-five players.
Fewer than three weeks ago, she beat Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova on her way to the Dubai Premier 5 title, and this week, she has beaten current world No1 and defending champion, Naomi Osaka, and now Pliskova—her 12th straight match-win once her two Fed Cup matches are added to the equation.
It has been an impressive and welcome return to form, for Bencic was indeed a top-10 player several years ago. She reached No7, made her first Major quarter-final, and won the elite-level Toronto Premier while still a teenager. But she then had to work her way back up the ranks after back injury and then wrist surgery in 2017.
From outside the top 300, she was back to 45 in the ranks by Dubai, and won her first title since 2015 the hard way, via four consecutive three-set wins, and match-points down against Aryna Sabalenka.
That took her to No23, and a seeding, in time for Indian Wells, where she continued to look as cool as cucumber, channelling her inner ‘Federer’ calm as she had promised. For the second straight year, Bencic partnered the famous Swiss Roger Federer at the Hopman Cup, and again won the title.
She admitted in Dubai, where the same Swiss duo won both titles:
“I’m trying to be as calm as him. I know I’m far, far, far away from that. I’m trying.”
But she added, after her victory over Petra Kvitova in the Dubai final:
“This is definitely the fittest I’ve ever felt.”
And that stood her in good stead in a two-and-a-quarter-hour see-sawing contest against her friend, Pliskova, in their first ever meeting. For make no mistake: Pliskova was also in fine form this year, winner in Brisbane, semi-finalist in Australia—beating Serena Williams—and 16-3 thus far in 2019.
Bencic broke early, held off break points, and broke again for the first set, 6-3. Her tactically smart mix of attack with defence earned her 14 winners to just six errors, and she dropped only four points on her first serve. In fact, her serving performance stood out against one of the best servers in the game: Bencic matched Pliskova in aces and outperformed the tall Czech in both first and second serve stats.
But Pliskova turned on the heat in the second set to open a 4-0 lead. Bencic showed that fitness and mental determination to fight back to 5-4, and then worked a break point to level the set, but Pliskova’s serving kicked in, and she held, 6-4.
The third set was tight, and Bencic was not helped by a dip in her serving level. She won 16-17 of her first serves, but too often was punished on her second serve. Even so, she had Pliskova under pressure in a marathon fourth game, but could not convert four break chances.
Finally, though, her all-court efforts—stepping inside the baseline to attack Pliskova, and working the angles with her outstanding backhand—got their reward, the one break the Swiss needed. She served out the win, 6-3, to set a fifth meeting with world No8, Angelique Kerber, a left-hander 10 years her elder, with three Majors to her name.
Perhaps surprisingly, Bencic leads their head-to-head 3-1, but the Swiss wins came when she was still a teenager, and Kerber won their most recent, in Wimbledon last year.
Not that Bencic seemed fazed at the prospect of facing another former No1, with that confidence in her fitness underpinning her calm outlook:
“I definitely feel like I’m moving much, much better on the court than I have ever moved. I actually never feel like I’m getting tired—or more tired than my opponent on the court.
“I think you definitely need it against the top of the world, to be just incredibly fit, and not just one week but many weeks in a row.”
She went on:
“I said yesterday, the less I think on the court the better it is. When you’re confident, you can really just trust your instincts and you don’t have to think about it at all… I’m really just trying to take it one step at a time. Of course, now it’s been a few steps more. But—you know!”
Her run in Indian Wells has already assured a return to the top 20 for the Swiss, and two more steps for the title would make it No13. That is some return from No74 just 10 months back, and her highest ranking since the then teenager first made the top 10 more than three years ago.
The semi-final line-up: begins 6.30pm local time, 1.30am GMT
· All four semi-finalists are aiming for their first Indian Wells final.
· The other semi pits No6 seed Elina Svitolina against the unseeded Canadian wild card Bianca Andreescu, who at the age of 18, has been making the kind of waves this week that Bencic made at the same age when she won the Toronto Masters in 2015.
· Andreescu has won 26 matches this season across all levels— both ITF, qualifying and WTA main draws—more than any other player.
· Svitolina has played only one seed in Indian Wells, beating No12 Ashleigh Barty in the longest match of the year so far, 3hrs 12mins, 7-6(8), 5-7, 6-4.