Precocious Bencic Is a Phenom Who Loves to Lob


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Belinda Bencic of Switzerland serves to Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine during their third round match at the Australian Open on Friday.

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Aaron Favila/Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia — A few hours earlier, Belinda Bencic, still just 18, had secured herself a fourth-round match with Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open.

Now Marcel Niederer, Bencic’s Swiss manager, was sitting in a Melbourne restaurant — sunlight streaming through the window after Friday’s early rain — and thinking about geometry.

Bencic’s father, Ivan, was born in the former Czechoslovakia, but his family fled to Switzerland in 1968 after the Soviet invasion. Ivan Bencic and Niederer grew up in the same small Swiss town, Uzwil, and later became ice hockey professionals before starting business careers.

Niederer made an excellent living importing coffee to Russia, and when Ivan’s daughter showed a remarkable aptitude for tennis at 6, Ivan asked Niederer for the seed capital to develop her career properly.

“Belinda’s grandparents, they fled from the Russians to Switzerland,” Niederer said. “Thirty years later, the money I made in Russia gave the initial financing for Belinda’s career. That’s a nice circle.”

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It is the sort of border-bridging, against-the-odds tale in which tennis seems to specialize. Sharapova, in particular, could appreciate it in light of her own moonshot journey to stardom after leaving Russia as a young girl with her father, no guarantees and less than $1,000 between them for the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

Though Sunday’s round-of-16 match in Melbourne will be Bencic’s first chance to face Sharapova, it will not be their first meeting. That came at the academy.

“Belinda has a photo of her in Florida with Sharapova when she was 6 or 7 years old,” Ivan Bencic said.

A decade later, Belinda Bencic has matured into a significant threat. Coached by her father and Martina Hingis’s mother, Melanie Molitor, Bencic possesses a precociously complete game à la Hingis and a rare ability to read the flow of play that are making the elite increasingly nervous.

Bencic is not the fastest or the most powerful, but she can take the ball early repeatedly and still rarely seem rushed. Unlike too many groundstroke-bashing players today, she has a Plan A and a Plan B.

Asked whether she would rather hit a lob winner or a big forehand winner, Bencic did not hesitate: a lob.

“Unbelievably smart player,” the veteran coach Gunter Bresnik said. “She understands the game really well and knows exactly how to throw the other player off.”

Sharapova, now 28, said Friday: “An impressive player. It’s a tough fourth round. We haven’t played against each other before, but I’m sure we’ll be playing many times. It’s great that we can start here.”

Unseeded at the Rogers Cup in Toronto last August, Bencic upset Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, Serena Williams and Simona Halep to win the title. Seeded 12th at this Australian Open, she is on the verge of breaking into the top 10 and would probably already be there if a hand injury had not stopped her momentum late in 2015.

In competition, Bencic has a perfectionist streak and already has rolled many an eye and swatted many a racket against the world’s show-courts in frustration. Glances at her box are as common as artful shots.

But off court, she is an upbeat and independent-minded interview subject who is quick to laugh and to answer.

“I always wanted to be here on the big courts, and now I finally made it,” she said Friday in the players’ lounge. “So I keep reminding myself that I really have to enjoy this time and not be too tight, too serious, too obsessed.

“I’m in Australia. I don’t know how many 18-year-old girls can travel the world like me and have such a great life, and I really appreciate it a lot. And I remember this when I am, like, down or not appreciating.”

Like many a Swiss, including Roger Federer, she is a polyglot. She speaks Slovakian at home with her parents and her younger brother, Brian. She also speaks Swiss-German, German and English and is getting serious about learning French because of her friendship with the rising French player Kristina Mladenovic, who very nearly reached the fourth round as well before losing, 6-4, 4-6, 11-9, to Daria Gavrilova of Australia on Friday night.

“You don’t have that often with people, but we just, like, clicked,” said Bencic, who watched the match in Mladenovic’s box. “We have the same interests and sometimes the same thoughts and off the tennis court, we like to hang out with each other and you know typical girls talk like shopping, talking about boys, just stuff like this. And it’s nice to have a friend on the tour, because it’s not always easy. There are a lot of opponents here also.”

Asked in which language she feels most herself, Bencic thought for a moment.

“I do think sometimes you have a personality for each language,” she said. “But I don’t know which one is most me. I’m very thankful my parents taught me Slovakian. I think when you have a chance to have an extra language, why not? There are so many parents who can speak their language from where they are from but don’t teach the kids, so I think it’s a waste.”

In light of her father’s sporting background, the question is why Bencic did not end up with a hockey stick in her hand instead of a racket.

“My brother was playing ice hockey like my dad, and sometimes I even went to practice with him wearing the full pads and with the boys, but I think it was not for me,” she said. “I think tennis it’s the perfect sport for girls. You can dress up nice on the tennis court and be a girl but also fight and be strong.”

Ivan Bencic played tennis recreationally — and now gets beaten by his daughter when she plays with her non-dominant left hand. But he was above all drawn to the sport by Hingis, who in the 1990s became the first Swiss player to reach No. 1 and win major singles titles.

“In this time there was no Roger, no football teams who had played high-level football,” he said. “Switzerland’s sport was a little bit understated, and Martina showed what is possible from Switzerland, and this was a good inspiration for us.”

Contacting Molitor, Hingis’s mother and coach, was thus a logical step. Molitor also had immigrated to Switzerland from present-day Slovakia. Ivan said he telephoned when Belinda was 5 and asked if Molitor would take a look.

“Talent is not a typical word for Melanie to use,” he said. “But she saw what I had done until then, until Belinda was 5. I had played one year for one hour a day with balls and coordination things, and Melanie saw all the work we had done and said, ‘O.K., go follow your way and sometimes we contact each other.’ We had more and more contact, and then she started her academy. We were half a year at Bollettieri’s and then we came back.”

Molitor continues to work with Bencic when Bencic is in Switzerland and to consult with Ivan Bencic when they are on the road.

Asked what makes Molitor a great coach, Belinda said: “Well, she tells you the truth right into the face. And that’s what you need to get better. You don’t always need someone tapping you on the shoulder telling you are doing great.”

Hingis, now the top-ranked doubles player, also continues to be a mentor and was in the front row of the players box next to Ivan Bencic on Friday as Belinda rallied to beat Kateryna Bondarenko in three sets.

“It’s easy because Martina has been in this situation,” Bencic said. “And she can tell you everything about it, and you don’t have to figure out yourself.”

It is quite an entourage. Niederer agreed to back Bencic’s career in the early years, allowing Ivan to quit his job and travel extensively with his daughter, until sponsorship was able to fill the gap. The agreement was that Niederer would become her manager if she became a successful player.

He said he handled only Swiss contracts with the agency Octagon managing global affairs. But with several Swiss sponsorship agreements already in place, Niederer said he would soon recoup his initial investment.

“When I made this contract when she was 6, I was not thinking about the money, I was thinking it was an adventure, a tennis project,” he said. “And every year she was in the top of her age group, and it’s been a great pleasure to watch her.”

Bencic insisted that she had not felt extra pressure because of the arrangement.

“It’s true that it could have felt that way,” she said. “But my dad and Marcel, even though they did this project and invested in me, they never gave me the feeling that I really have to do it. I always played tennis because I wanted to.”



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