Thursday, March 14, 2019 - Angelique Kerber plays Venus Williams in the quarterfinal of the BNP Paribas Open in Stadium 1 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. (Jared Wickerham/BNP Paribas Open)
Kerber was playing in her second year as a Top 10 player in search of her first Grand Slam at the US Open. She had broken through to the semifinals back in 2011 and, seeded No. 6 in the draw, fancied her chances in the city that never sleeps – that is, before she ran into 17-year-old Bencic.
Bencic was a two-time junior Slam champ from the year prior, ranked 58 on the pro tour and playing in just her fourth-ever Grand Slam main draw. Eager and fearless, she took to court on a sunny New York afternoon and blasted Kerber off the court en route to a quarterfinal finish, which remains her best Slam result to date. Four and a half years later, what has changed?
Kerber has reached World No. 1; she’s won the Australian Open, US Open and Wimbledon championships; she’s amounted nearly $30 million in career prize money and has all but secured her place in the sport’s Hall of Fame. Bencic, on the other hand, has won two Premier 5 tournaments – but was marred by injuries in between. From 2016 to 2018, the talented Swiss prodigy endured wrist surgeries and food injuries, halting her progress on what many considered to be an inevitable rise to the top of the game.
The 22-year-old Swiss’ 2019 revival has been something to behold, however. Bencic’s title at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships last month was her biggest since Toronto in 2015, and was the start of a 12 match win streak that has seen her reach the semis here at the BNP Paribas Open. Following up her win over World No. 1 Naomi Osaka in the fourth round with a thrilling three-set win over Karolina Pliskova on Thursday, Bencic appears to be back at her all-court best. Confident on all groundstrokes as well as her signature drive volleys, she brings a 4-2 head-to-head record into her final-four clash with Kerber.
“I think I did great steps forward in the fitness side,” commented Bencic on what has spurred her recent run of results. “I definitely feel like I’m moving much, much better on the court than I have ever moved.”
“I actually never feel like I’m getting tired, or more tired than my opponent on the court. I think that was the huge improvement. I think you definitely need it against the top of the world to be just incredibly fit and not just, like, one week but obviously many weeks in a row.”
Although the score is 4-2 in Bencic’s favor, head-to-heads can be deceiving. Before their most recent clash at Wimbledon, which was won by the German en route to the title, they hadn’t faced each other since 2016. Kerber narrowly escaped defeat at the hands of Aryna Sabalenka earlier in the tournament, but expertly counterpunched her way to victory against the ageless Venus Williams in Thursday’s quarterfinal.
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“I think it will be completely different match tomorrow,” said Kerber on the drastic shift in styles between Williams and her semifinal opponent. “I mean, Bencic is playing really flat and she’s going for it. She has a lot of confidence, especially from the last weeks. It will be not an easy match.
“It will be a battle.”