Former phenoms Bencic, Vekic fight back after the fall

Jim SLATER

New York (AFP) - Belinda Bencic and Donna Vekic, each a former teen tennis prodigy whose career plunged, have battled back into a US Open quarter-final matchup with eyes on loftier prizes.

Croatian 23rd seed Vekic, 23, saved a match point and beat Germany's Julia Goerges 6-7 (5/7), 7-5, 6-3, to reach her first Grand Slam quarter-final.

"This is really such an amazing achievement for me," Vekic said. "It's amazing.

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"If this happened to me when I was 18, I would be like, 'Oh, my God, this is unreal,' but right now I'm really happy but I'm not done.

"I don't want to be done. I feel like there is still a lot to be done here, and I really want to keep going and try to win a few more matches."

Swiss 13th seed Bencic, 22, was nagged by numerous injuries including wrist surgery from 2016 to 2018, but reached her first Slam quarter-final since the 2014 US Open by eliminating top-ranked defending champion Naomi Osaka 7-5, 6-4.

"I think it will be great that one of us will be in semi-final," Bencic said of playing pal Vekic. "It means a lot, because she was also very good with 16, 17 won her first WTA title. Then it was the pressure and some injuries, some difficult times.

"Now we're both back. It feels very nice. I'm very happy for her. But definitely I want to win."

Bencic was a world junior number one at age 16 and reached the US Open last eight at age 17 in 2014, the youngest quarter-finalist since Martina Hingis in 1997.

Now Bencic is coached by Hingis and the retired star's mother, Melanie Molitor.

Bencic won her first WTA title in 2015 at Eastbourne and then won the 2015 Canadian Open by beating four of the world's six top players. Then came injuries, wrist surgery that sidelined her five months and a fightback that saw her win a title last February at Dubai.

"There were times when you're injured you ever wonder if you can play at this level again," Bencic said. "Then I also believed if I'm going to get back and healthy, I can play on this level, because I proved it so many times. It was just about being consistent and if it was going to be enough.

"It helps when the belief is there, when you know you can be top 10. So when you've been there, you know your way is working. That helped me a lot through these injuries."

- Troubles build strength -

Vekic made her first final at age 16 in Tashkent in 2012, won her first WTA title at the 2014 Malaysian Open then fell out of the world's top 100 in 2015 and 2016 before finally cracking a Slam quarter-final in her 25th main draw appearance.

"Everyone makes mistakes, especially when you're young," Vekic said. "I don't know what I would change, because at those moments I thought I was making the right decisions."

Bencic has learned that the trajectory for a rising young star rocketing to the top is not always a direct path.

"Everyone expected to go just up. That's not how tennis goes. I think all true athletes have to overcome obstacles, injuries, just tough times. I think it made me a stronger person, better player," Bencic said.

"It has been a long way since then, for sure. People always think I'm a little bit older than I actually am, because I've been here since 16, 17. It was a good time. I learned so many things."

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