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Belinda Bencic is the youngest women's player in the world's top 100
The 17-year-old Swiss has exploded onto the WTA Tour in 2014
At this month's Family Circle Cup, she stunned two top-10 seeds
World No. 2 Li Na -- and many others -- have dubbed her "the new Hingis"
It’s no easy matter becoming a world class tennis player. It’s even harder when everyone (really – everyone) is calling you the “new Martina Hingis”.
No pressure then on the 17-year-old Swiss tennis prodigy Belinda Bencic.
“Belinda is the best junior player in the world and I think that shows that she has a great potential,” said Hingis’ mother Melanie Molitor, who has been working with Bencic for over a decade.
“The number one junior player usually develops into a good senior player as well. As for Belinda it’s all up to her and what she makes of it.
“She certainly has good basics, she’s very versatile and therefore I think she has good chances.”
But the road to greatness is paved with many pitfalls as Bencic discovers two hours into her deadlocked Family Circle semifinal clash against a faultless Jana Cepelova earlier this month.
After missing a relatively easy winner, the Swiss teenager slashes her racket toward the crowd and screams into the floor, yanking her pink cap down toward her eyes.
A squandered chance. And Bencic knows it. If she really wants to be the new Hingis, she’ll need to keep it together.
A big year
Weeks before, as Bencic sits courtside at the Chris Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida – the training facility that she and her family have made their winter home – she cuts an entirely different figure.
Beaming a smile in the Florida sun, Bencic reflects on a year that started as she exploded out of tennis’ youth divisions by taking the junior crowns at Wimbledon and the French Open – before rising to become world junior No. 1.
Arriving at January’s Australian Open unseeded, she fought through three qualifying rounds, and broke 43-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm 10 times on the way to an impressive first-round win.
Faced, next, with Chinese star Li Na – and her first chance to shock the tennis world – Bencic kept a steady head, insisting she “didn’t have much to lose.”
After being blitzed 6-0 in a 20-minute first set in the Rod Laver arena, the then 16-year-old challenger almost seemed to be enjoying herself.
She put up a gritty fight in the second – which went to a tie-breaker – before her defeat to the eventual champion:
“I could go out there and play my best and the pressure was all on her. It’s not easy to play a younger player,” Bencic, who is now the youngest player in the top 100, told CNN’s Open Court.
“The first set was a lesson but … the second set I relaxed a little bit more and I gave her a fight.”
If Bencic wasn’t born to be a tennis star, it wasn’t long before she set about making herself one:
“I started walking on the tennis court, so my first steps were on the tennis court,” she says. “And a few moments later, I tried to play and I had fun.”
As a child, her walls were lined with posters of compatriots Roger Federer – her mother is his biggest fan, she says, so the two watch all his matches together – and, of course, her idol Hingis.
By the time she started racking up wins in junior competitions, the comparisons with the former world No. 1 – who won three of her five grand slam singles titles before turning 17 – were inevitable.
In addition to the inevitable – being a hard-nosed Swiss-born star, to émigré parents from the former Czechoslovakia – from the age of four she was coached by Molitor, who imparted her with a certain familiar style.
“You can see by the hands, and you can see how she takes the ball on the rise,” 18-time grand slam champion Chris Evert tells Open Court at her exclusive academy, referring to the similarities between Hingis and Bencic.
“And how she improvises and how she comes up with touch shots when she needs them.”
Molitor concurs: “Their technique is very similar,” before adding the proviso: “However, it’s been 17 years and the style of tennis has changed.”
Evert is adamanat she saw Bencic’s “X-Factor” as soon as she arrived.
“She’s very focused mentally, emotionally very composed and I just thought: ‘She has it.’”
While many young players are singled out by technique – the ability to strike a killer serve or critical backhand – Bencic is one of the very few already applauded as a tactician.
“I think it’s true I’m not the biggest power player but I am trying to think on the court and (have) a good tactic against opponents,” said the world No. 91.
Molitor also cites the relentless preparation that modern sport now demands – and Bencic’s willingness to accept the sacrifices that need to be made in the pursuit of greatness.
“I think a lot of it has to do with me and the training I put her through,” said Molitor.
“We’ve put much emphasis on discipline and versatility. I think it makes a big difference that she is versatile and can rely on all these shots on the court.”
Ever the perfectionist though, Molitor cautions: “However, she still has to work a lot on her serve.”
Evert and Bencic agree that behind her mature composure and mental strength lies a close-knit and supportive family.
Bencic’s father Ivan is now her full-time coach, while her brother fills in as hitting partner.
After each match, that maturity becomes clear.
From the hard-fought win against Date-Krumm, to the gutsy defeat by Na, Bencic undergoes a remarkable post-match transformation, from steely, ruthless competitor to gracious student – thanking her opponent for a tough lesson, and vowing to put it into action in the next match.
Coping with expectations
Back at the Family Circle, Bencic is forced to admit defeat.
After more than two and a half hours on court, grappling an opponent with more than double the matches she has on the circuit – who has twisted her and turned her with a ruthless display of her own – Bencic smiles.
She is the first female qualifier to reach the semifinals and the youngest finalist since (who else?) Hingis – but will go no further.
But for “the new Hingis,” there’s no rush to match the expectations that come with the title. Just a composed desire to take it to the next level.
“My goal is to improve every day, to get as far as I can, be the best that I can, and just to look step-by-step. I don’t want to set any goals – it’s extra pressure – and I will just play.”
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