It really isn’t supposed to happen. Eighteen-year-olds sign up for the major tournaments to gather experience, to learn from the senior players.
In a good week, they will qualify for the main draw, perhaps claim a victory or two against higher opponents. But they aren’t supposed to win the title….
Nobody told Belinda Bencic. Reel back to 2015, and one of Eastbourne’s more surprising weeks. The array of stars is in town: Kerber, Wozniacki, and a host of other big names. And further down the draw, a Swiss youngster, just as hopeful as all those other eighteen-year-olds...
Reel back a little further. A tiny girl with a large racquet is playing on the tennis court behind the family house in Switzerland. “I think I was two, two and a half, and my Dad gave me a racquet. It was just fun but I took to it! I remember going to my first tournament at age five, a bit scared because I wasn’t very good at counting to keep the score.
“After that I was with the academy of Melanie Molitor – the mother of Martina Hingis. Like me, they were a Slovak family living in Switzerland, and of course Martina was already a champion at sixteen. I just loved it – it was not just technical tennis education, we were a big family.”
Hingis, herself a regular and popular figure at the Eastbourne tournaments, proved a wonderful role-model – but after a terrific path through junior competitions, Bencic was making her own mark. And four years ago, at just 18, she astonished everyone – well, everyone outside her own camp – by searing through round after round at the Devonshire Park.
“I remember everything about the whole week, a beautiful week. Well, it was my first title, so unforgettable! I am usually quite emotional, but during that week I don’t remember a lot of emotion. We just took it a round at a time, and I was playing opponents I wasn’t supposed to beat – so there was very little pressure really! I just kept thinking – right, I’m the outsider, they have to beat me.”
To us observers and reporters at the time, Belinda was astonishingly calm and collected. Well supported, and in the right sense sheltered by Molinar and Hingis, she just kept winning. Nobody stopped her: Mona Barthel, Madison Keys, Eugenie Bouchard, Konta, Wozniacki and in the final Agneska Radwanska – taking the deciding set 6-0.
We probably should not have been quite so surprised. With a maturity always beyond her years, Bencic had already reached the quarter-finals at the 2014 US Open, and ahead of the Eastbourne title, she had claimed eye-catching victories against players of the calibre of Wozniacki.
A run to the fourth round at Wimbledon followed immediately, and a WTA title at the Canadian Open closed off 2015.
But then a couple of years of injury frustration put the Bencic career on hold. “It was frustrating, not knowing if your body will hold together - but it never crossed my mind to give up. I am fully fit now, and I’m feeling really good.”
The current year has seen some outstanding results, claiming the prestigious Dubai title and going deep into almost all her 2019 tournaments so far.
What can we expect at Eastbourne? “Well, I’ll be delighted to be back! Grass is my favourite surface and I don’t really need to adjust, although I will have played the WTA weeks at ‘s-Hertogenbosch and maybe one other tournament.
“Eastbourne is a week that all the players love – lovely courts and lovely atmosphere. I hope I’ll get a good welcome back!”