Belinda Bencic has a great deal in common with her fourth round opponent at the Australian Open, Maria Sharapova.
It was, after all, only 10 seasons ago that Sharapova defeated Justine Henin-Hardenne in straight sets in the 2006 US Open final in order to claim the second Grand Slam title of her adolescence, 27 months after seeing off Serena Williams to win Wimbledon at the age of 17.
The Russian, now 28, has gone on to claim three more Grand Slam titles. However, no player has succeeded in emulating her achievement of winning a major championship as a teenager.
Bencic, who turns 19 in March, would seem better placed than any of her colleagues on the ATP or WTA Tours to end this run, and a victory against Sharapova on Sunday would immediately mark her out as a real contender to triumph in the Australian Open Women’s Singles Final next Saturday.
The fact that the Flawil native is being mentored by the five time Grand Slam winner, Martina Hingis, who became the youngest ever major champion of either sex at 16 at the 1997 Australian Open, will surely reinforce her self-belief.
Bencic’s 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 defeat of Kateryna Bondarenko this morning ensured her first ever progression to the last-16 of the Australian Open on the occasion of her third appearance. While this lack of late draw experience might be seen to afford Sharapova a decisive edge, Bencic already featured in a Grand Slam quarter-final at the 2014 US Open and reached the fourth round at Wimbledon last season.
Indeed, Bencic is arguably better prepared to win a Grand Slam now than Sharapova was in 2004.
For as impressive as the Russian’s record of having triumphed three times at WTA Tour level prior to winning Wimbledon was, all three of her victories came at bottom tier events (the Japan Open, the Bell Classic and the Birmingham Classic), and none of the players who she beat in those finals (Aniko Kaparos, Milagros Sequera and Tatiana Golovin) ever broke the world’s top-10 or meaningfully competed at major championship-level. Bencic, meanwhile, has featured in five WTA Tour finals in the last 14 months, and she has already won at both Premier-level at Eastbourne and Masters-level at the Rogers Cup.
More impressive than the status of those tournament victories, however, is the manner in which they came about.
Bencic beat world number 17 Madison Keys, 2014 Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard, the fast-improving Briton, Johanna Konta, double US Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki, and world number four Agnieszka Radwanska in order to win at Eastbourne. She also felled Ana Ivanovic, world number one Serena Williams, and Simona Halep en route to claiming the Rogers Cup.
The 18-year-old was one of only seven players to beat Serena in 65 matches in 2015, and she has now recorded 10 victories over top-10 players over the last 14 months, winning 46 of the 69 matches that she played in 2015. Teenager or not, this is the kind of form that compels notice at Grand Slam level, and the seriousness of the Swiss’ major championship credentials is attested to by the fact that she is seeded 12 at the Australian Open.
Sharapova comes into this match as a justified favourite, not least owing to the fact that she has featured in four Australian Open finals in the last eight years.
However, Bencic has proven her ability to beat the WTA Tour’s elite over the last 12 months, and the fact that the pair have never previously faced one another means that the Swiss stands to benefit from the same element of surprise that helped Sharapova to shock the field at Wimbledon 12 years ago.
Bencic is a coming force at Grand Slam level, and a victory over Sharapova at the Australian Open this weekend could propel her to the title.
[Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images]