Column: Belinda Bencic upsets No. 1 Naomi Osaka at U.S. Open
It was almost too much to take in, an all-you-can-dream-of buffet of performances by champions past and future, a day to appreciate diverse styles and strategy and admire the resilience of athletes who had been wounded in body and spirit.
From Belinda Bencic’s ability to think a move or two ahead and build points instead of always going for the kill in eliminating defending champion Naomi Osaka, to 5-foot-7 Diego Schwartzman playing the role of David to 6-6 Alexander Zverev’s Goliath, to Rafael Nadal making an impossible get on 33-year-old legs, to the finale — American qualifier Taylor Townsend using her serve-and-volley tactics to push all-court standout Bianca Andreescu of Canada to an emotion-packed third set — this day at the U.S. Open was a feast.
No one wanted it to end, and it nearly didn’t. Townsend, a onetime phenom who’s rebuilding her career at 23 after disappointments and injuries, took 15th-seeded Andreescu to a fifth match point before Andreescu put away a 6-1, 4-6, 6-2 victory and clinched a spot in the quarterfinals.
Rafael Nadal quickly reverses course after losing the second set of his fourth-round match to beat Marin Cilic at the U.S. Open on Monday.
“She had an incredible run coming from [qualifying] and getting to the fourth round,” Andreescu graciously said of Townsend. “I’m sure she’s going to go far.”
So will Andreescu. “I’ve been working and dreaming of this moment for a long time,” she said. “I’m really happy, but the tournament’s not done.”
Like Townsend, Bencic was a teenage sensation until her career was tilted sideways by a series of injuries. It was easy on Monday to see why she was so highly regarded. Bencic out-thought and outplayed the powerful Osaka, ending her reign as U.S. Open champion with a 7-5, 6-4 victory under the closed roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
It was Bencic’s third triumph this year over Osaka, and each was a carefully considered gem. On Monday, Bencic took the ball early, on the rise, and constantly made Osaka uncomfortable. “I’m not the player who has the most aces or winners,” No. 13 seed Bencic said after reaching the quarterfinals here for the first time since she got this far five years ago at age 17. “I try to play it like chess.”
Her victory created an odd sweep: It was the second straight day a defending champion and No. 1 player in the world was eliminated by a Swiss opponent. Top men’s seed Novak Djokovic retired Sunday after losing the first two sets to Stan Wawrinka, citing an injured and painful left shoulder.
Osaka, 21, played on a sore left knee that was encased in a wrap, and it bothered her enough to ask a trainer for a painkiller during the second set. She said she didn’t practice her serve before coming here “because I can’t really land on my leg that great.” That wasn’t an excuse for her loss, she said.
“I think that’s something I should have overcome in a way. I either should have started playing more aggressively or just tried to hit at a higher length,” said Osaka, whose hopes of repeating as the BNP Paribas Open champion at Indian Wells this year were ended by Bencic in the round of 16. Bencic also defeated her in a quarterfinal on clay at Madrid in May. “For me, I feel actually better losing here than when I lost in Indian Wells,” Osaka said. “Of course, there’s not a feeling of acceptance, but I feel like I learned a lot from today.”
Osaka will be remembered as a winner here, anyway, because of her generosity toward 15-year-old Coco Gauff after Osaka had beaten her in their third-round match. Osaka insisted that Gauff join her on the court for a post-match TV interview instead of retreating to the locker room to cry, a thoughtful gesture that will resonate long after Osaka’s exit here becomes a distant memory.
“What Naomi did is what a true champion would do,” Bencic said.
Osaka’s departure guarantees there will be four different female Slam champions this year for the second year in a row. It also left Serena Williams as the only woman still in contention who has won a Grand Slam event singles title or reached a major final.
No. 23 seed Donna Vekic of Croatia, another prodigy derailed by injuries, became a first-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist when she saved a match point and came back to defeat No. 26 Julia Goerges of Germany, 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-3. Goerges had 21 aces and 57 winners but also committed 50 unforced errors, leaving room for Vekic to take charge in the third set.
“I don’t know how I won this match,” said Vekic, who will next face Bencic.
No. 25 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium, whose best performance in a Slam event was a semifinal loss in the 2018 Australian Open, routed American wild-card Kristie Ahn 6-1, 6-1. She will face Andreescu, a first-time Slam quarterfinalist.
In the other half of the draw, Williams’ quarterfinal opponent Tuesday, Wang Qiang, has had her best Slam performance here. No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina established a career-best this year when she reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, where she lost to Simona Halep. Johanna Konta, who will face Svitolina on Tuesday, made it to the semifinals at Australia (2016), Wimbledon (2017) and the French Open (this year).
Getting past debilitating back, foot and wrist injuries has given Bencic new life and confidence.
“The key is now that she feels fit on the court, and this helps her to play her tennis,” said her father, Ivan, who is her coach. “She is coming back to her tennis again and now she believes that also she can beat everybody.”
Bencic’s deliberate style is like Martina Hingis’. She was a joy to watch. So were so many others who participated in this tennis feast.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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