Young seeds thrive, but still in Serena Williams' shadow
Outsider Bencic won warm-up event, but will the old hands pick up their game?
Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic won the WTA Eastbourne International tennis tournament in Eastbourne. Photograph: Getty Images
Eastbourne may not carry the glamour or freight of Wimbledon. But as the sea breeze rippled the flags over the Grand Slam warm-up event last week it wasn’t Serena Willliams or Maria Sharapova who caught the eye.
It may be an annual punt to try to read the straws in the wind and predict what will happen in southwest London, with the bigger names seemingly able to step up on command. But those at Eastbourne will unashamedly aspire to tilt at windmills over the next fortnight.
It might help that Wimbledon has shown an independent streak in recent years with Petra Kvitova, Sabine Lisicki, Eugenie Bouchard, Marion Bartoli and Agnieszka Radwanska all making it to the last two.
Kvitova, the reigning Wimbledon champion, was forced out at Eastbourne through sickness.
Whether her involvement would have changed the outcome is for the gods to know, but a few days ago it was the relatively unknown Belinda Bencic, who picked up the winner’s trophy after the 18-year-old defeated Radwanska over three sets.
In doing so, she became the youngest player to win a WTA Tour tournament since 2008.
Bencic, also Swiss, was just 16 weeks old when Hingis won Wimbledon as a teenager in 1997, and six years old when Roger Federer won the men’s title. By then she was playing tennis at the centre run by Hingis’ mother, Melanie Molitor, who she has been working with for over a decade.
Bencic won the girls’ singles title at Wimbledon at the age of 16. This is impressive, until you remember that Hingis won it as a 12-year-old. Hingis paid the physical toll. Those days appear to be over.
“Martina gives me a lot of good advice, not just this week but all the time. Also I practise with her mum, so she’s my coach when I’m back at home,” said Bencic. “They have been a big influence on my game.”
Molitor has clearly prepared Bencic for her impressive rise. But the WTA’s decision to promote the younger players is an indication that most don’t get to challenge seriously for the majors until they’re in their mid-20s, although there are exceptions in Romanian Simona Halep and Bouchard, who is struggling with injury.
Other teenagers in the draw are Croatia’s Ana Konjuh and Donna Vekic. And then there is the equivalent of Ireland’s Maguire twins in golf, Lisa and Leona, in Karolina and Kristina Pliskova.
Until over a year ago, the name ‘K Pliskova’ would have meant one of two sisters. But after Karolina won her first title, the narrow ranking gap widened to about 120 places between them. Karolina is knocking on the door of the top 10 and seeded at 11 for the championships. She is now 23 but feels like a teenager.
“They say about twins that they’re two years behind normal people,” she said. “And I feel like I’m 19 or 18. Even my coach says I’m a bit slower with some things. It doesn’t matter what age you are. I don’t care if I win Wimbledon now or at 30.”
It probably doesn’t help that she has a mild allergy to grass, but she appears to have discovered her ability on a surface that can be divisive among players. She survived a three-setter against Johanna Konta in the first round at Birmingham two weeks ago before reaching the final.
“I’ve had the feeling that grass should be good for me,” she said. “But I didn’t have any good results on grass until last week.”
She lost to Sabine Lisicki in the second round at Wimbledon last year.
The American Madison Keys, coached by former champion Lindsay Davenport, is just 20 and seeded 21st for the competition. With a grasscourt title under her belt from Eastbourne last year, she knows the surface.
The 21-year-old Caroline Garcia of France also hopes to be part of their revival and she is seeded at 32 this week.
There are also two 21-year-olds from outside Europe: Zarina Diyas, who was born in Kazakhstan and Russian-Australian Daria Gavrilova, known as Dasha.
There aren’t that many looking past the older set, with Williams in crushing form in Paris before arriving to her favourite tournament.
But at 33 years of age, she can hold her head up for other reasons. She’s just a year younger than Hingis and 15 older than Bencic.