Labor Day in New York always seems to pull off a surprise or two, and this year was no exception as it saw the current reign of Naomi Osaka come to premature end.
I just came with the same mentality like I played her before. [I] just really focused on the game and not about the hype or the occasion, the stadium and the crowd. After the match, it feels definitely different. It feels like this was the most important one. Belinda Bencic
There was no shame in it, a mere reflection of the great depth in women’s tennis these days, especially among the younger generations.
For the second time this year, Belinda Bencic, the No 13 seed from Switzerland, took out the defending champion in the 4th round, beating the World No 1, 7-5 6-4, in an hour and 26 minutes at the US Open.
It was a stunning performance.
For Osaka, a two-time Grand Slam champion by the age of 21, the loss of her title also means she will now drop off the top of the rankings.
Bencic’s first win over the Japanese this season came at the same stage at Indian Wells, giving the Swiss seven Top 5 victories for the year.
“I just came with the same mentality like I played her before,” she explained after her win on rainy Monday.
“[I] just really focused on the game and not about the hype or the occasion, the stadium and the crowd. After the match, it feels definitely different. It feels like this was the most important one.”
Playing under the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the conditions were very different, close and muggy. It didn’t bother the Swiss one bit.
“The challenge cannot be bigger than Naomi,” said Bencic, who notched her tour-best 9th Top-10 win this year. “I had to be at the top of my game. I’m pleased how I managed my nerves.
“I had to take her serve early, try to anticipate, because she has a lot of power,” she added. “I tried to play it a little bit like chess and tried to anticipate on the court.”
Since undergoing left wrist surgery, missing 5 months of play and slipping outside the Top 300 in 2017, Bencic has been a woman on a mission.
The 22-year-old opened the year partnering with countryman Roger Federer at the Hopman Cup and helping Switzerland retain the trophy.
In Dubai, she lifted her 3rd career singles title, defeating the likes of Elina Svitolina, Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep, and she came into the US Open ranked No 12.
Bencic got off to the faster start, dominating with the early strike, depth and easy redirection off her backhand wing.
She held 4 points to move up a 3-0 double break but, having coughed up a pair of early double faults, Osaka gathered herself, finding fine first serves to save them all and overpowering the Swiss with her forehand to break back for 2-2.
This set the stage for a cleanly played opener in which there was nothing between the two of them until its closing stages when, in the 10th game.
With Osaka serving at 5-all, 30-40, Bencic swatted a forehand past her charging opponent to move ahead, then stepped up to serve out the set, overcoming 2 double faults of her own to take it with 2 magnificent backhand winners.
Both ended it with positive ratios of winners to unforced errors, 16 to 11 for Osaka and 15 to 8 for Bencic, and only one further game would feature a break point.
A huge backhand pass set up a triple break point opportunity for Bencic at 2-all in the second and Osaka subsequently surrendered it with an untimely double fault, 1 of 3 on the day.
During the changeover, the 21-year-old received a visit from the trainer, but did not receive any treatment, leaving fans wondering if the knee injury that forced her out of the Cincinnati quarter-finals was again hindering her play.
Although she out-aced Bencic, 9-0, it was not enough to overcome her 22-year-old opponent’s ground game.
Bencic finished with 29 winners to just 12 unforced errors, converting 3 of 7 break points in the near hour and a half triumph.
“Obviously I always adapt to my opponent – that’s just how I play,” she said. “I don’t have the biggest power, don’t have the most winners or most aces. But I think I can really read the opponent’s game well.
“I definitely try to do that against anyone, not only against her. Just taking the ball early and anticipating her… I think my game probably matches up well against hers.”
Osaka agreed, saying: “She played pretty clean. I think she had a specific plan she wanted to execute.”
The result moves the former World No 7, who won all 9 of her net approaches today, into her first Grand Slam quarter-final since making the last 8 here on her 2014 debut, while Osaka will lose the World No 1 ranking after the tournament to Roland Garros champion Ashleigh Barty.
“Right now I have this feeling of sadness, but I also feel like I have learned so much during this tournament,” Osaka explained. “Of course I wanted to defend this tournament.
“[But] I feel like the steps that I have taken as a person have been much greater than I would imagine at this point. So I hope that I can keep growing. I know that if I keep working hard, then of course I’ll have better results.”
A positive for Osaka was that she felt she improved her game over the summer.
“I don’t feel like I put so much weight on one single match,” she said. “As a whole I want to see that I played better matches through the summer. Because I feel like definitely the tournament that I played here has been the best one so far.”
Although the statistics on paper might indicate a stronger serving performance by Osaka, who boomed down 10 aces to Bencic’s none and committed only 3 double faults to Bencic’s 6, it was in fact the World No 12, who struck 14 winners to a meagre 4 unforced errors in the second set, whose delivery was impregnable.
Bencic conceded only 4 points on serve in the second set, sealing victory with a one-two punch to set up a quarter-final against either No 23 seed Donna Vekic, who overcame a record 21 aces from Germany’s Julia Goerges to advance, 6-7 7-5 6-3, in Louis Armstrong Stadium.
The Swiss holds a 2-1 advantage in head-to-heads, though she dropped their most recent encounter, earlier this year, in the 3rd round at Roland Garros.
Having split with her coach, Vlado Platenik, last year, Bencic now works extensively with Melanie Molitor and her Hall of Fame daughter, 1997 US Open champion Martina Hingis.
Donna Vekic booked her spot in her first Grand Slam quarter-final in thrilling fashion, saving a match point in the second set against the No 26 seed Julia Goerges for a 6-7(5) 7-5 6-3 to break new ground at a major.
Facing a 0-3 head-to-head against Goerges, the 23rd seeded Croatian came back from 7-6 5-3 down to win a two-hour-and-43-minute marathon under the roof in Louis Armstrong Stadium.
“I think when the matches are, like, this close, you know, even if you’re match points down, you have to believe that you can win,” Vekic said. “I was really going out there, when she was serving for 5-4, I was really thinking I could win this game and try to turn the match around.
“I’m happy to win and I’m happy to win saving match points, happy to be first time in the quarter-finals.”
Forced to weather the storm, literally and figuratively, Vekic withstood 57 winners and 21 aces from Goerges’ racket, as the German also racked up 50 unforced errors over the course of the longest women’s singles match at the Open this year.
Goerges held a match point on her own serve in the 10th game of the second set, as the former World No 9 looked to advance to just her second career Slam quarter-final, but missed a forehand in the net on her lone chance to clinch victory.
Buoyed by her second chance, and 3 double faults from the German in a marathon game, Vekic got the match back on serve, and ultimately won the last 4 games of the second set to force a decider.
Once back in it, it proved a matter of when, not if, Vekic would break through in the final set.
After seeing a break point pass her by in Goerges’ first service game, and 2 more slip away for 3-3, she took the 3rd of her opportunities in a 0-40 game to finally break for 5-3.
“I think I definitely had the momentum on my side after second set. I knew she was going to be thinking about her match point,” Vekic said.
“I had few chances to break her earlier in the third set, but she was just serving amazing today. I’m happy that I could break her and then serve it out.”
The 23-year-old had equalled her best previous Slam result by reaching the Round of 16, having done so at the French Open this year and at the Australian Open last year.
The breakthrough to the final 8 is a long time coming for Vekic, who first reached the WTA Top 100 at the age of 16 back in 2013.
“This is really such an amazing achievement for me. I have been already three times in the fourth round, and now making my first quarterfinals, it’s amazing,” Vekic said. “I think me, if this happened to me when I was 18, I would be, like, ‘Oh, my God, this is unreal.’
“But right now I’m, like, 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.”
Up next, Vekic will face good friend, and more-than-occasional practice partner Belinda Bencic, who dethroned defending champion Naomi Osaka inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Neither player has ever reached the semi-final at a Grand Slam, but the match will be their second at a major this year.
“We always joke that we are playing each other in the draw. But we actually played in Paris. And was that the first time I beat her? I think so,” Vekic said.
“We practice together often. I know her very well. She’s such a nice girl. I’m really looking forward to share the court with her on Wednesday.
“I will probably try to change the rhythm and play a few high balls, few slices, few drop-shots to try to keep her guessing. My main game will definitely be to be aggressive and to try to open up… the court.”
Vekic is the first Croatian to reach the US Open quarter-finals since Ana Konjuh in 2016.