NEW YORK – If Switzerland's Belinda Bencic were born in the U.S., the hype surrounding her would be off the charts the last few years.
She has been the "next big thing" as long as anyone in tennis can remember – certainly, probably, as long as she herself can remember. Yet a year ago, she was losing in the quarter-finals of the junior event here to Antonia Lottner of Germany.
The 17-year-old bowed out Tuesday against unseeded Shuai Peng of China, an inconsistent 6-2, 6-1 loss in which she looked her age for the very first time, after an outstanding tournament. It was a winnable match that would have put her into the U.S. Open semi-finals but, in the end, she lost to another U.S. Open quarter-final rookie, but one who is 28 years old and whose vastly greater experience showed.
But Bencic will be back. She has the game, and the force of a legend and her mother behind her.
Bencic, whose day-to-day coach is father Ivan, has been working with Martina Hingis's mother Melanie Molitor since her father brought her to Molitor at age four. As it happens, Bencic is the youngest in the U.S. Open quarter-finals since ... Hingis in 1997.
"(Molitor) taught me really to play smart and to think on the court. Yeah, to have an overall game.. Almost everything I know I know from her," Bencic said.
This week in New York, daughter Hingis has taken over as mentor. The comparison is obvious, for all the obvious reasons. But Bencic's strengths, the fact that she's more of a chess master with power on the court then a typical, straight-ahead power groundstroker, makes those comparisons even more apt. Call her a Hingis for the 21st century.
Well, obviously there are (similarities). The technique, my mom puts a lot of attention to that. So the game, I mean, she's got a great backhand, as well. But also she's stronger, so she can work with other weapons than I had," Hingis said. "I mean, maybe I was more maybe a little better mover, but when she hits a shot it can be a winner. Like she's hitting a lot more winners than I did."
"Every three months you can see improvements. Also, the big difference is like the belief that you can actually win against big players, great players, seeded players in Grand Slams. I'm very happy for her that she was able to do that (against Jelena Jankovic in the fourth round)," Hingis added.
Earlier in the tournament, Bencic upset the No. 6 seed, Angelique Kerber of Germany and the No. 9 seed, Jelena Jankovic, a former world No. 1 and U.S. Open finalist. Both Kerber and Jankovic are players who don't depend on power to make their fortune so Bencic had a lot of material to work with, and was able to impose her own game.
Hingis and Bencis have practiced a lot together this week – volley-volley drills at the net have been a notable feature. And the joy both take in doing that is a reassuring sight in these days of baseline bashing. Hingis, who is playing doubles here with Flavia Pennetta and already is in the quarter-finals, has been a calm presence at Bencic's matches.
"I was expecting her to do well, but not as well as she actually did in the (Yanina) Wickmayer match (in the first round). I think after that she just started to believe. I'm very happy for her. It's nice. My mom did most of the work the last ten years, so she's finally proving it. You know, very good tournament so far. Hopefully another one," Hingis said.
Hingis was there all week, even when Bencic hadn't yet earned the bigger show courts, including her second-round win over Kurumi Nara of Japan (below).
She's already a big deal back in Switzerland, which is home to a few rather competent tennis players these days. All season long, Bencic's warmup jacket has looked like a Formula One jacket – the front is plastered with sponsors' labels that she's limited in being able to wear when she's actually on court.
Bencic isn't a surprise upstart at this U.S. Open in the same way that Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia was, after her upset wins over No. 27 Madison Keys and No. 3 seed Petra Kvitova and her major effort in pushing 2013 finalist Victoria Azarenka to three sets in the fourth round. Krunic is 21, her current ranking of No. 145 isn't too far from her career best of No. 126 reached a year ago, and her last tournament before the U.S. Open was a $50,000 tournament in Poland. Krunic's results here truly came out of nowhere.
Bencic's curve has been sharp, but steady. Currently at a career best No. 58, she ended 2012 (at age 15) ranked No. 626. At the end of 2013, she was No. 212.
And before that, she was the No. 1 junior in the world.
A year ago, before that quarter-final loss in New York that capped off a crazy-busy summer of junior tennis in singles and doubles, she won both the French Open and Wimbledon juniors. In Paris, she defeated then 17-year-old American Taylor Townsend in the quarterfinals, 9-7 in the third set. She defeated Townsend in the Wimbledon final, 6-4 in the third, in one of the finest women's junior matches you will ever see, one that had every shot, covered every part of the court, and gave hope that the future of women's tennis is more varied and clever than the present.
Bencic becan the 2014 season by qualifying at the Australian Open and defeating Kimiko Date-Krumm (she was still 16, Date-Krumm was 43) in three tough sets before taking eventual champion Li Na to a second-set tiebreaker in a two-set loss. A few months later, she quaified and went all the way to the semi-finals at a clay-court event in Charleston, S.C. (seven matches), before losing to youngster Jana Cepelova in a third-set tiebreak.
She has played the entire season at the WTA Tour level and has qualified basically everywhere she played. And now, she actually has a shot at making a U.S. Open final her her first trip to the main draw.
Perhaps Bencic hasn't gotten all of the hype. But she's getting the results.