Few things in tennis (or sports in general) are more fun than watching a young prospect develop into a full blown star. With this in mind, I started this Prospect Evaluation series, designed to be snapshots of young players at big events.
Today I focus on 16 year-old Belinda Bencic from Switzerland. Bencic beat Kimiko Date Krumm in the first round of the Australian Open, and then lost to Li Na in the second. This was her first ever Grand Slam, just her fifth WTA-level event, and the loss to Li Na marked just her eighth match at the highest level of women’s tennis. Suffice to say, she’s just starting the transition into the main tour.
I’ll use the Verdict scale for evaluating a few key parts of Bencic’s game. In case you haven’t seen the scale, here it is:
Her motion is not the most fluid, but it’s far from problematic (many people have mentioned that it looks quite a bit like the serve of Bencic’s compatriot, Martina Hingis. As an aside, Hingis’s mom has been working with Belinda). I wasn’t impressed by Bencic’s use of the slice first serve, since she struggles to consistently get the necessary pace and bite on that delivery for it to be really effective.
However, when Bencic uses a flat first serve out wide from the AD court or up the T from the Deuce court, that first serve does look impressive.
The biggest problem in Bencic’s game is the second serve. It quite frequently sits up in the middle of the service box with very little pace or spin. It gets routinely murdered.
The serve is probably one of the main areas Bencic and her team will work on in the coming years, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t get significantly better. She’s got a pretty good base to work with already.
This is a very solid shot, and one that Bencic loves to belt cross-court. She hits good forehands from various parts of the court, and isn’t afraid to change the direction of the ball. She hits it decently on the run, too. Belinda doesn’t have that “easy power,” but she sure can put some pace behind some of her forehands.
No problems here, either. A solid two-hander all around. There’s not a whole lot of slicing going on, but that’s fine for now.
Bencic is not not an explosive mover (like say, Sloane Stephens), but anticipates decently, which helps. She’ll never defend at an elite level, but a combination of smarts plus incremental improvement in her first step should get her defense to an acceptable level.
As it is to be expected at her young age, it’s difficult for Bencic to get back to the baseline after getting pushed back by aggressive shots. Being able to turn defense into offense is one of the hardest things to learn, since hitting very good shots on the run is a complicated task to master. But all top level talents eventually do it, as they become stronger and more experienced. I fully expect Belinda to be able to do so in the future.
5. Return of serve
This is a strength already. Bencic likes to be aggressive with her returns, but she’s not reckless (yesterday she had only 8 return unforced errors, which was 6 fewer than her more heralded opponent). Her lack of an explosive first step hurts her a bit if her opponent hits the corners, but that’s not the worst thing on Earth. I was impressed by Belinda’s forehand down-the-line returns from the Deuce court; they’re already deadly.
6. Tactical Awareness/Court Awareness/Shot Selection
Bencic likes to be proactive in rallies, frequently looking for the open court. However, she needs to be aware of her opponent’s strengths (in order to avoid unnecessary dangers) and weaknesses (so as to know where to inflict pressure in the big moments). For example, in the first set against Li Na, Bencic sent way too many neutral shots to Li Na’s backhand, which everyone knows is her best wing. It took Bencic a while to realize that this was probably not a good idea, which was a big reason why the first set score was 6-0, and the second was 7-6. However, in that second set tiebreaker, Bencic had a chance to hit an aggressive forehand at 5-all, sent a neutral ball to Li Na’s backhand, and immediately was forced to play defense. Moments later, she lost the point, and then the match. A lesson for the future.
Another issue I found is that Belinda tends to misjudge the depth of her shots in terms of her court position for the following stroke. Here’s what I mean: when you watch tennis live, one of the things that stand out more when compared to watching on TV is how frequently a player would hit a short shot and immediately backpedal a couple of steps. Their opponent hasn’t even hit the shot yet, but the player who backpedaled knows that there’s a high chance that an aggressive shot is coming, which will be easier to defend from a deep position behind the baseline.
Belinda likes to stick around the baseline, which is great. But she’ll get in trouble when she doesn’t recognize that she just hit a subpar shot, since an aggressive shot by her opponent will be difficult to defend from that position (there will be less time to react, for once) and I already mentioned how Bencic doesn’t have that first quick step, either. Still, the only way to solve this issue is by playing more top-level matches. Which Bencic most definitely will.
6. Demeanor/Competitive Spirit
In the two matches I saw Bencic play, I saw two slightly different sides to her. Against Kimiko Date-Krumm, Bencic seemed quite irritable. Indeed, she screamed at her camp and smashed a racquet during the first set, perhaps signs that she fully expected to beat the woman who is 27 years older than her.
Today against Li Na, Belinda was significantly more subdued, yet still intense. I like her competitive spirit – it’s clear she likes to compete, it’s clear she has high expectations for herself, and you can sense the ambition glowing in her eyes. Plus, Bencic did not seem over-awed by her Rod Laver Arena debut. By the end of the match against Li Na, she was carrying herself like she belonged in that big stage.
7. Projected Ceiling
Belinda Bencic is already quite polished for a 16 year-old, so many, many kudos should go to everyone involved in her development up to now. Yes, there are some obvious problem areas, but overall, she’s quite impressive. At this point I don’t see top 5 in her future: more like someone who fluctuates between top 10 and top 15. I’m looking forward to seeing where she’s at when we wrap up the 2014 season.
Are you writing one for Konjuh, by chance? I think she has much bigger upside than Bencic (and the former owned the latter in juniors).
I will be writing one of these pieces about Konjuh in the future, for sure. I did see her play Li Na the other day, but I chose not to write a prospect evaluation then, given her elbow injury. Once she’s healthy and back on the tour, you’ll see a piece on here here.
Good analysis! I gotta say that I was more impressed with Konjuh as well.
Thank you! And I agree – Konjuh seems to have a higher ceiling. I hope her elbow surgery goes well.
Like you, one of my most enjoyable aspects of sports is to evaluate talent young and see how that player develops and evolves over time. Hopefully to eventually fulfill all of their potential. However, at the same time, I think making projections such as this off the basis of only two matches that you have seen Bencic play is premature analysis to say the least. Jumping the gun for the sake of it.
At least watch a player play close to ten times before coming to such matter of fact opinions about how high their ceiling might be. She’s only 16, as you well know, her natural ability is clear to see, as it happens I’ve seen her more than twice (less than ten times), but too early in my view to think you can make a very specific prediction of a 10-15 ranking off the basis of only two matches in just one particular tournament.
I do think that you have a keen eye for being able to deconstruct a player’s strengths and weaknesses though, so I hope you take these comments in the constructively critical way they are intended and not as any form of diss. Snapshot analysis based off very little evidence kind of bugs me and you’re certainly not the only one guilty of it in the sports (or tennis) world.
Thanks for your comment, Jay, and be sure that I take it as constructive criticism. I see your point about watching many more matches from a given player before writing one of these posts, but that makes sense only if I was ever going to write a single prospect evaluation for a given player. My idea is to write several posts like this for someone like Bencic, so that one can go through the different snapshots of the same player and compare the progress (or the errors in projection). The series has barely started, but it will be one of my main priorities for 2014.
I also think it’s fun to try and look into the future after a single impression. Sometimes it’s inevitable: things just seem obvious. And in terms of ceiling, it’s all speculation anyway, particularly when dealing with players that are this young. Only when someone is around 24 or 25 years old can we be more or less certain what their ceiling is, given the amount of evidence. For now, it’s just fun. Kind of like, I think Bencic’s ceiling is what I wrote yesterday. What do you think it is? It’s all about comparing different points of view at this point.
Thanks for taking my comments in the spirit they were intended and appreciate the measured response. In terms of the series itself that you’re going to be conducting, I think it should be very interesting and will look forward to more appraisals as, like I said, I think you are clearly well versed in being able to break down the technicalities of a player. So even just purely from a breakdown of a player’s game at that moment in time the articles should be of good value to the reader and worthwhile.
I also agree that it’s fun to try and project the future of a player, I do it often, and it’s probably the aspect of sports that I enjoy most. There’s always something quite satisfying about feeling you have spotted potential greatness in a player at a young age, long before they become household names on tour, and seeing they evolve over time.
For example in the past I predicted big things for Vaidisova (it didn’t quite work out, but she at least did reach no7 and a GS SF) and Azarenka (we all know the story there, and bonus I’m just a big fan of hers in general – her character/attitude). Muguruza is a player I’ve been talking up for over a year, as well as Svitolina, although I believe Muguruza has a higher ceiling than Svitolina. So my eye is closely on both of them as they develop and hopefully enjoy some success on tour in the years to come.
So in terms of the predictions and speculation, I’m all for that in general, but as stated in my original post only after watching a player enough to feel confident in forming at least a partially concrete view of what the potential could be.
In terms of Bencic, IIRC, I’ve seen her play maybe 6 or 7 times, a couple of those times were at Juniors level, which although worthwhile to see obviously won’t necessarily tell us anything beyond the obvious – which is that she was a very good Junior. But as we know, success at Junior level doesn’t always translate on to the main tour for many reasons dependent on how a player further develops and transitions to playing harder, faster and stronger competition on a week in, week out basis.
In my case, I’m not comfortable yet to really put any kind of specified prediction of where she might project to, beyond the obvious that she certainly has talent and that with a smooth progression in the next 2-3 years easily has the makings of someone who might make their living as a top 40/50 player. The raw picture is that her natural talent probably means that’s the least anyone should expect from her and I could understand those who have seen her more than a couple of times to confidently predict this is someone with top 20-30 in the future.
I always feel that the jump from top 15-20 to 1-5 is vast and I would only go as far as to say someone is of the 1-5 variety if I truly believed I saw something really special there. Whether it be purely the ability with the racquet or other characteristics that can not so easily be quantified like character and mental strength. Of course those are judgment calls that can have very differing opinions.
I remember many people telling me in the dark ages of the old BBC message boards when Azarenka was 17 that she would never amount to anything because she was too emotional and temperamental. Whereas I actually saw that as a strength in her, one that would at some point need to be harnessed and cultivated for her to use it consistently for her rather than against her. It’s pretty evident that she has reached that stage over the past couple of years. I kind of miss original hysterical Vika from a soap opera view point, but in terms of her tennis, the Vika 2.0 is clearly the one she needed to become to reach no1 and Grand Slam success.
Of all the current youngsters on tour such as Bouchard, Stephens, Muguruza and Svitolina, I don’t actually see any of them hit me as 1-5 material. That’s not to say none of them or at least one of them won’t achieve such heights, I just think at the moment I’m only willing to go as far as saying top 20 with all of them for now (in Sloane’s case she’s obviously been on the brink of top 10, although I expect her to fall this year back towards the 20 range rather than being closer to 10).
Bouchard and Stephens have definitely been overrated in my view, a consequence of the North American press pushing them on to the front stage, and in Sloane’s case, her SF appearance in Australia last year – so her original hype wasn’t without some merit, I will concede. The WTA seem far too fixated on Bouchard, I understand the reasons why, she appears to be an engaging and good prospect who also happens to be hugely attractive which clearly doesn’t hurt the marketing side of things.
But is she that much better than Muguruza or Svitolina? In my view, not. And I’d go as far as saying I would anticipate, on the basis of good health for both players, that Muguruza will have the better career of her and Genie, but I’ve been wrong before.
Apologies for going on different tangents with respect to the young players, I guess I’ve just been meaning to say all of this – hopefully coherently – for quite some time beyond the medium of Twitter which just doesn’t facilitate quality discussion most of the time.
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