Awesome Bencic stuns Venus

  • Linda Pearce
  • Ben Solomon

“Bad luck” was the message Belinda Bencic kept hearing after learning she would play Venus Williams in the first round of Australian Open 2018. On Monday, the unseeded 20-year-old made her own luck, eliminating the seven-time major winner and fifth seed 6-3 7-5.

What appealed as one of the marquee match-ups in the women’s first round lived up to its billing, just as Bencic justified her reputation as one of the finest young talents in the women’s game. She is ranked 78th, but was inside the top 10 in 2016, and is surely headed back there. With wrist surgery now behind her, there is so much still ahead.

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“It was amazing, this match. I think the level was great,’’ said Bencic, who credited her fine returning and refusal to be cowed by Williams’ record and reputation for her improved showing.

“Also, you know, she beat me four times before, so I was really happy, took my chance this time. Obviously just happy to be back playing. It was a very, very long time when I was out. I couldn't wait to come back, so it means a lot.’’

Williams was a beaten finalist last year, as the American sisters shared 13 wins over a fortnight in which Serena claimed a seventh Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy. The family total this January will be zero, with Serena not yet quite ready to resume from maternity leave, and Venus disappointed to be departing so soon.

Yet what was a massive upset on paper had been widely flagged, and Bencic's resolve was not dampened by an early rain delay. Bencic was serving at 4-3 when, at deuce and after having saved five break points, light drizzle became heavy enough for play to be suspended for more than 20 minutes as the roof was closed over Rod Laver Arena.

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The timing was delicate, but the resumption emphatic, as Bencic served her third ace and then hit a backhand winner down the line to start a run of six consecutive points that allowed her to close out the set

The pattern changed slightly in the second, with the pair trading two breaks each to open. As the momentum was swinging to and fro, Bencic continued to swing confidently and play consistently from the baseline, as the Williams error count mounted.

pattern
Total winners
Venus Williams
22 Venus Williams
32 Belinda Bencic

After threatening to break through in the eighth game, she eventually pounced in the 12th, successive forehand winners allowing her to close out the match in one hour, 53 minutes, then celebrate one of her finest career victories with an almost palpable sense of disbelief.

The oldest player in the field at 37 years and 212 days, Williams had won all eight sets played previously against the young Swiss, who was once coached by Martina Hingis’ mother, Melanie Molitor, and shares some clear similarities in style, while having a clear edge in power. Perhaps the most impressive of her statistics was the fact that just 12 unforced errors complimented 32 winners, while Bencic also converted five of 11 break points to Williams’ two from eight.

pattern
Unforced errors
Venus Williams
26 Venus Williams
12 Belinda Bencic

Bencic’s serve and fitness have both improved, along with her maturity, she believes, as she is thinking less about winning or losing than simply being happy to be back on the court again after the frustrations of being sidelined for five months.

She finished 2017 with a flurry, having chosen to take the competitive route back via the second-tier ITF circuit, rather than using the cushion of a protected ranking, and has now won 29 of her past 32 matches.

Bencic also partnered Roger Federer to the Hopman Cup title to start the season; on Monday, she received a few words of advice beforehand and a quick congratulations afterwards from her compatriot, as well as the support of Federer’s parents, Lynette and Robert, in the players’ box.

Meanwhile, there was the inevitable speculation about whether Williams’ 18th visit to Melbourne Park would be her last, yet in 2017 she was the most consistent of all the women at major level - the two-time runner-up was also the only player to reach at least the final 16 in all four majors.

But there was little to celebrate this time, Williams having lost her only lead-up match in Australia - in three sets in Sydney to eventual champion Angelique Kerber.

"I had two tough draws. You have to get started immediately. Just not the best luck in terms of, you know, a quick start," said Williams, who credited Bencic for playing some "amazing" tennis. "I don't think I played a bad match. She just played above and beyond. I just have to give her credit for that."