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New York | Bencic bags Last 4 slot over Vekic

The next generation is serving notice at the US Open, with 3 young women settling into the semi-final berths, but they have a wily veteran, keen to settle a historic score, lying in wait before any silverware can be claimed.

I really like the challenge. Some players are maybe afraid of the big courts but for me it is more motivation. I am really enjoying my tennis Belinda Bencic

Serena Williams is chasing Margaret Courts record 24 Grand Slam wins, while Elina Svitolina, her next opponent, has yet to reach a major final. They play their semi-final on Thursday night, followed by the winners of Day 10’s two remaining quarter-finals.

The first to be resolved was between two good friends when they stepped inside Arthur Ashe Stadium to contest the coveted semi-final slot.

Belinda Bencic, the No 13 seed, followed up a Round of 16 upset of defending champion and World No 1 Naomi Osaka with a 7-6(7) 6-3 win over Donna Vekic, seeded 24, to move into the Last 4.

“I think we are professional enough to be friends off the court, but do our work on the court, and stay focused,” said Bencic. “I’m sure, off the court, we are still friends.

“I really like the challenge. Some players are maybe afraid of the big courts but for me it is more motivation. I am really enjoying my tennis.”

Her Croatian friend earned the first opportunity on return when Bencic let a 40-15 lead slip away in the first key game of the opener, at 4-4.

The Swiss served 2 double faults and made 2 unforced errors off of her sturdy groundstrokes, to hand over the first break of serve and allow Vekic an opportunity to serve for the set, but she was unable to close it out.

With her back against the wall, Bencic rallied to break the Croatian serve for the first time before eventually edging the opener in a tight tiebreak.

Vekic saved a set point at 5-6 and 2 more in the tiebreak, but a long forehand gave Bencic the upper hand.

The Swiss, a former Eastbourne winner, had a huge slice of luck serving at 30-30 at the start of the second set when a backhand was flying wide but clipped the net cord twice before landing in.

The pair again traded holds of serve, with Vekic keeping her nose in front by saving 2 break points to take the lead, 3-2.

It proved to be the last game that the Croatian would win in the match, and, behind a pair of love games, Bencic wrestled command of the overall match, and secured her victory.

The Swiss cranked up the pressure and broke her next service game to love before reeling off the final 3 games and converting her 3rd match point.

Bencic, who first reached the US Open quarters 5 years ago as a prodigious 17-year-old, sealed her personal milestone in an hour and 42 minutes.

“I think she was just playing better tennis, overall, today,” Vecik said. “I felt like I couldn’t get 3 good points together.

“I was playing one point good, then bad. I don’t know. I didn’t really have a lot of rhythm out there today. I was just struggling a little bit with that.

“I think she played really well the important points.”

In some ways, Bencic, one of the women’s tour elite counter-punchers, had the perfect preparation for her second Open quarter-final by deftly directing Osaka’s booming groundstrokes around the court for her 3rd win over the Japanese in 2019.

In what was a chess match of sorts between the Swiss and Vekic, who is more traditionally aggressive, the two players swapped service holds over the first 8 games of the 1st set, with neither even getting a look at a break point opportunity.

“I knew today was going to be a very difficult match. Donna is in great form now. She showed it again today,” Bencic said. “I think we played a very good match with high-quality rallies.

“It was definitely not easy. I’m happy. I don’t know, I stayed calm in the important moments. I just managed to win.

“I think it was small points that changed the whole match. It was, of course, very tight even in the second set,” the Swiss added

“I tried to put a little bit more variation in the game. I tried to play a little bit smarter.

“I’m happy my serve helped me in these important moments, even though I did some double-faults, which I didn’t like. That’s all I can say: just remaining calm in these moments.”

It is the long-awaited Grand Slam breakthrough for Bencic, whose well-documented struggles with injuries and subsequent surgeries saw her drop outside of the world’s Top 300 in late 2017.

Over the last 18 months, she has surged back up the rankings and with this victory, she will return to the WTA Top 10 for the first time since early 2016, when she was ranked a career-best No 7.

“I was dreaming, of course, about this day coming, but you never know what’s going to happen. You’re not thinking about it. You’re just right in the moment. Either you’re practicing or focusing on your match,” Bencic said.

“I worked hard for this. It’s not like I never imagined I could do this. Still, I stayed in the moment [and it’s a] very nice feeling.

“I think the dream of every tennis player obviously is to win the biggest tournaments.

“I think for sure being No.1 in the world or winning a Grand Slam is always a dream, but I think it’s still a long way to that. Of course, I think you can see it there.

“I think the work and staying in the moment is more important right now. Just taking it step by step, like I said all my career.

“I know it sounds boring. It’s how you have to approach it. I’m just trying to get a step closer to that every day. Today I am a step closer.”

A first-time US Open finalist is now guaranteed in the top half of the draw, with Bencic set to face Bianca Andreescu, the 19-year-old Canadian, who overcame an error-strewn first set and used her superior firepower to came back to beat No 25 seed Elise Mertens, 3-6 6-2 6-3, on Wednesday evening.



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