But, from my standpoint, by far the most alluring Fed Cup by BNP Paribas World Group first round confrontation was the clash between Switzerland and Germany in Leipziger Messe, (Leipzig, Germany) on an indoor hard court. Why was this duel between nations so appealing? Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber was there, admirably willing to play for her country despite adjusting swiftly to her newfound status as an elite winner of a Grand Slam event. She was determined to do whatever she could to help Germany succeed. Meanwhile, the ever entertaining Martina Hingis—fresh from her triumph in Melbourne alongside Sonia Mirza—was in Germany to compete in doubles for the Swiss contingent.
And yet, neither Kerber nor Hingis would be the central figure in these proceedings. That role was reserved for none other than the fast charging Belinda Bencic, an enormously compelling competitor who has been coached by Hingis’s mother Melanie Molitor. Bencic will one day be the best woman player in the world; on that point I have no doubts whatsoever. Bencic is much like Hingis as a strategist. Her instincts are uncanny. Her court sense is extraordinary. Her ball control is outstanding. And, above all else, she has high aspirations that she can back up substantially in the years ahead. Bencic’s determination, focus, unbridled intensity, match playing capabilities, and keen instincts will carry her just about anywhere she wants to go in the future.
Keep in mind that she will not turn 19 until March, but the fact remains that she concluded 2014 stationed at No. 14 in the world after winning titles in Eastbourne on grass over the guileful Agnieszka Radwanska and Toronto on hard courts. In the latter, she upended four members of the top ten, including Serena Williams and Simona Halep. Picking up in 2016 where she left off last year, Bencic reached the round of 16 at the Australian Open before bowing in a hard fought contest against 2008 champion Maria Sharapova, losing narrowly 7-5, 7-5.
And so Bencic stood at No. 11 in the world when she competed so honorably for Switzerland against the Germans. Bencic appeared in the opening match and picked apart Andrea Petkovic 6-3, 6-4. Kerber followed with a straightforward 6-1, 6-3 triumph over 2015 French Open semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky. With the two nations deadlocked at 1-1, Bencic took the court for the pivotal third contest against Kerber. This was the marquee match of the series, a battle between a wily 28-year-old lefty and an 18-year-old stylist who seems so much older than her years. It was a collision between a woman of considerable experience and a savvy teenager unafraid to confront such an accomplished adversary. It was, ultimately, a first class contest that surpassed all other encounters played across that weekend.
At the outset, Kerber largely had the upper hand as Bencic fought ferociously to find her range. The left-hander held at love for 1-0, closing that game with an ace down the T. Bencic responded in kind with a love hold of her own, releasing a pair of forehand winners as she drew level at 1-1. Kerber, though, was performing with purpose, intelligence and precision. She served superbly to forge a 40-0 lead, double faulted, but then held at 15 with a confidently struck forehand passing shot winner off a forehand down the line volley from Bencic. It was 2-1 for Kerber.
In the fourth game, Bencic double faulted long for 15-30. Kerber promptly pounced, taking the next two points, surging to 3-1. Bencic reached break point in the following game, but Kerber took an overhead on the bounce and sent it accurately down the line for a winner. On her second game point, Kerber advanced to 4-1, using a wide serve in the ad court to create an opening for a forehand crosscourt winner.
Kerber walked on court knowing full well that she had lost both of her previous appointments with Bencic, but now she seemed ready to make amends for those setbacks. A first set rout in favor of Kerber looked very likely when Bencic double faulted to fall behind 0-30 in the sixth game. But the teenager displayed remarkable maturity, taking the next three points with unstoppable first serves. She then held on for 2-4, coaxing an error from Kerber with a cagey looping shot.
The momentum of the match had shifted significantly from one player to the other. With Kerber serving at 4-2, Bencic pulled off a spectacular backhand passing shot winner for 0-30, guessing correctly when the German approached off an exceedingly short ball, timing her shot impeccably. Kerber rallied for 30-30 but Bencic persisted. A deep return elicited an error from Kerber, and then the Swiss stylist provoked another error from her adversary. They were back on serve. Bencic held at 30 for 4-4 with an ace out wide. Both players held twice to bring about a tie-break.
Kerber commenced that sequence stylishly, unleashing an inside out forehand winner for 1-0. Bencic took both of her service points to lead 2-1 before Kerber rallied for 2-2. But, with Kerber serving at 2-2, Bencic took charge. A penetrating return from the Swiss opened up an avenue for a forehand winner, giving her a 3-2 lead. Bencic moved to 4-2 with a forehand winner directed down the line. She progressed to 5-2 when a besieged Kerber erred off the backhand side. Yet Kerber stood her ground, answering with a backhand crosscourt winner and a first serve that was too much for Bencic.
Now Bencic served at 5-4, realizing the outcome of the showdown could depend largely on these next two points. The underdog was not found wanting. Kerber made a costly unforced error off the backhand to make it 6-4 for Bencic, and then the Swiss came through handsomely, placing her first serve precisely down the T, drawing a short return, and then making an inside out forehand winner. The tie-break belonged to Bencic by seven points to four. She thoroughly earned it. Bencic made only ten unforced errors in the set while Kerber had twice as many. That was the essential difference between the two protagonists.
In the second set, Bencic held easily for 1-0, and then Kerber danced dangerously close to going down a break. Despite building a 40-0 lead, she had to save a couple of break points. After five deuces, she held on for 1-1 with consecutive aces. Bencic remained unrelenting. She held at 15 for 2-1. Once more, Kerber was taken to deuce on her serve, but she managed to hold on for 2-2 with an ace out wide in the ad court. Down 15-30 in the fifth game, Bencic held on a run of three straight points. Kerber replicated that feat, holding at 30 with an ace for 3-3.
Kerber had started the match with her left thigh taped, removing the bandage in the second set. She seemed slightly hampered, but the larger truth was that Bencic was playing tennis of the highest caliber, tennis that was good enough to beat just about anyone in the world. This was much more about her excellence than Kerber’s vulnerability. An astonishing forehand passing shot off a backhand half volley drop shot from Kerber gave Bencic a 30-0 lead in the seventh game. She held at love with an ace for 4-3. Bencic sensed her chance, playing a terrific game to break for 5-3. Serving for the match in the ninth game, she opened with an ace down the T, followed with a backhand swing volley that drew a passing shot error from Kerber, soared to 40-0 with a service winner, and released another unanswerable first serve. Bencic held at love to complete a gratifying 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory over the world No. 2.
Switzerland thus led 2-1. Annika Beck of Germany ousted Bacsinszky 7-5 6-4 to make it 2-2, and so it all came down to Hingis alongside Bencic against Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Petkovic. The Swiss duo was decidedly better than their opponents, prevailing 6-3, 6-2, lifting Switzerland past Germany 3-2. Although Hingis was the best player on the court in the doubles, Bencic was plainly the architect of victory for her nation, capturing two singles contests and one in doubles. That was no small matter.
Bencic will soon make an inevitable move into the top five in the world. She is undeniably a front line player, a champion in the making. In my view, she has one of the best forehands down the line in the world of women’s tennis. She has the grounding to get wherever she needs to go. It will be critical for Bencic to keep working hard, to learn from her losses, and to be consistently poised under pressure. Over her outstanding Fed Cup weekend in Germany, Bencic was strikingly composed. In her loss to Sharapova at the Australian Open, that was not the case; she advertised her distress at times, pouting too frequently, getting in her own way with self pity. Her negativity on that occasion was a liability.
Developing her mental game will be a key factor in Bencic’s growth as a competitor. But she is surely heading into the highest levels of the game. The women could do no better than to have Belinda Bencic near the top of the ladder, steadily improving, exposing her tactical acuity, and making her presence known all year long and beyond at the majors.