By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – The Belinda Bencic bandwagon is rolling again after her maiden Grand Slam semi-final appearance at last year’s U.S. Open, but given her extended run of injuries and dips in form the Swiss is reluctant to jump on board too quickly.
Bencic, who advanced to the second round at Melbourne Park on Tuesday with a 6-3 7-5 win over Slovakia’s Anna Schmiedlova, knows only too well how quick hopes can be dashed.
Her recent run at Flushing Meadows came five years after her maiden Grand Slam quarter-final in New York where the then-17-year-old was feted as a potential successor to compatriot Martina Hingis.
In the intervening years, wrist surgery and a string of other fitness problems repeatedly robbed her of momentum and confidence and getting back to her best took plenty of patience.
But it all came together in a rush last year as she claimed titles at Dubai and Moscow before sneaking into the season-ending WTA Finals for the first time.
Seeded sixth at the Australian Open, her highest at a Slam, Bencic is being seen as a Grand Slam contender again and the 22-year-old said the billing did give her confidence.
“It does, but on the other side it doesn’t buy me anything,” she told reporters after her win over Schmiedlova.
“It doesn’t matter anymore that I played Grand Slam semi-final in U.S. Open. Now it’s a new Grand Slam and I still have to win my matches to get there eventually again.
“So, yes, it’s about the confidence, for sure, but I think the expectation is a little bit bigger and I think you can’t compare yourself with U.S. Open right now. You have to focus on a brand new Grand Slam.”
Mentored by five-times Grand Slam champion Hingis, Bencic lacks power on her groundstrokes but her court craft and guile often trouble the game’s hardest hitters.
That was never more evident than at the U.S. Open when she dumped defending champion Naomi Osaka out of the fourth round, redirecting the Japanese player’s firepower and often leaving her wrongfooted.
Bencic’s serve also lacks punch, so she has not joined other Tour players by pledging money for Australia’s bushfire relief efforts with every ace she hits at Melbourne Park.
She is instead donating $200 for every double-fault she racks up.
She caused a minor stir in the leadup to the tournament by cheekily inviting men’s seventh seed Alex Zverev to buy into her fundraising model after the young German racked up an eye-popping amount of double-faults during the ATP Cup.
With four double-faults against Schmiedlova, Bencic contributed another $800 to the relief efforts for the fires that have killed 29 people and left thousands homeless.
“I could have done more (double-faults), but I didn’t,” she said.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)