Column: Belinda Bencic’s victory over Karolina Pliskova at Paribas Open shouldn’t be called upset
Success delayed was not success denied for Belinda Bencic, who had good reason to wonder if she’d ever revisit the heights she reached before injuries dragged her down in frustrating succession.
Her 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 quarterfinal victory over Karolina Pliskova at the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday technically was an upset because Bencic was seeded 23rd and Pliskova was No. 5. But it really wasn’t a surprise because Bencic’s seeding hasn’t caught up to her remarkable revival, which includes defeating four top-10 players to win a title at Dubai last month and routing world No. 1 and defending champion Naomi Osaka here in the round of 16.
Bencic’s 12th consecutive match win, played under blue skies and in sometimes whippy winds at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, was entertaining. She moves well, likes to take the ball early, and can turn points around with her backhand.
The 22-year-old from Switzerland, whose ranking peaked at No. 7 in 2016 before she was hampered by back and wrist problems, battled through some splendid rallies and fended off a second-set pushback from Pliskova with the poise of the champion she had seemed destined to become.
“It’s been a dream,” Bencic said after she secured a berth in the semifinals Friday against No. 8 Angelique Kerber of Germany, who ended Venus Williams’ run with a 7-6 (3), 6-3 decision. “I wouldn’t believe I win again today.”
Bencic earned it, rebounding after losing the second set to go up a break at 5-3 in the third when Pliskova hit a forehand long. Bencic won the two-hour, 16-minute match on a wide return by Pliskova, who said she struggled to muster enough energy and didn’t play nearly as well as she had hoped.
“Sometimes you’re just winning matches. You’re not thinking. I know this feeling,” Pliskova said almost wistfully. “She’s playing good. ... She doesn’t give you much. She moves well and she’s confident.”
Bencic also has the maturity to stay in the moment. “I’m really just trying to take it one step at a time,” she said. “Of course, now it’s been a few steps more.”
Kerber’s victory over the unseeded Williams was thorny more than dramatic. Williams, 38, wore heavy tape on her right knee during the match and didn’t seem to move well, yet she managed to find her way to the net when she had to and went up a break at 4-2 in the first set. Kerber broke back and later went up a break at 5-4, but Williams responded well and broke back for 5-5 when Kerber hit a forehand into the net. Kerber dominated the tiebreaker as she became more accustomed to Williams’ pace and tactics.
“She played really tricky, but in a good way. I mean, it was really hard for me to play my game, also with changing the rhythm and everything,” Kerber said. “I think she’s always a fighter and when she’s going on court she tries her best. Doesn’t matter what she has.”
The second set stayed on serve until Kerber broke for a 4-2 lead in a game that went to deuce four times. Williams appeared to be tiring, which was understandable. She spent seven hours and 22 minutes on the court to win her first four matches, while Kerber got a first-round bye and took four hours and 39 minutes to win her previous three matches. They spent an hour and 36 minutes on the court Thursday.
Kerber called it an honor to share the court with Williams, a former world No. 1 and seven-time Grand Slam winner who has long battled Sjogren’s Syndrome, an auto-immune disease whose symptoms include pain and fatigue. However, Williams said nothing Thursday about fatigue or an injury that might have undermined her chances against Kerber.
“I did the best I could,” Williams said. “She’s won a lot of matches. She knows how to survive.”
Asked if she was concerned about her ability to recover in time to play the next big event, at Miami, Williams replied, “It’s all too soon.”
Kerber and Bencic won’t have much time to strategize for their semifinal, but they won’t need a lot of study. They often practice together and they’ve faced each other six times. Bencic won the first four and Kerber took the last two, both in 2018, in Hopman Cup play and in the round of 16 at Wimbledon.
“So I think she knows how I’m playing. I know how she is playing. It will be a really interesting match on a high level,” Kerber said.
Bencic hopes to continue living the dream.
“It doesn’t depend on who’s on the other side. I’m focusing on myself, my game, just doing my best,” she said. “Win or lose, doesn’t matter. I will just fight.”
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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