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.