Everything was on the line for Belinda Bencic in this match — a win means a spot in the final and booking a debut at the WTA Finals, while a loss means that she will go home empty-handed with just an alternate spot in Shenzhen. Facing off with good friend Kristina Mladenovic in the semifinals of the Kremlin Cup, this was definitely meant to be a nerve-wracking match for the Swiss.
Standing opposite the net was Mladenovic, the resurgent world number one doubles player who clinched a top-10 win over the Shenzhen-chasing Bertens the day before. Looking dangerous on the indoor courts in Moscow, the Frenchwoman had three straight wins over Bencic previously and looked like the favourite to cause the upset on paper, but ultimately it was Bencic who stepped up to the occasion and stormed to a commanding 6-3, 6-4 win in just 93 minutes to book her spot in the final, and more importantly, a Shenzhen ticket.
Clinical on her first serves by winning 82 per cent of points behind them, Bencic was broken just twice throughout the entirety of the match while breaking serve on four occasions, winning 72 per cent of points behind Mladenovic’s vulnerable second delivery. 24 winners to just 12 unforced errors from the Swiss showcased her clean, counterpunching tennis while Mladenovic’s risk-taking backfired too often, with 28 unforced errors overwhelming 30 wonderful winners.
Bencic overcomes slip-up to take the first set
Faced with the overwhelming pressure, it was expected that Bencic would be nervous and struggle to find her rhythm on the court. Things turned out otherwise with the Swiss storming out to an early 3-0 lead, coming out of the blocks firing as her shots clipped the lines and her redirection of the pace was fantastic.
A terrific backhand down-the-line allowed Mladenovic to get onto the scoreboard for the first time in the afternoon, and the Frenchwoman soon returned back on serve with Bencic unable to find her first serves. Lengthy games followed with both players defending break points on their serves, but it was a flawless forehand pass from Bencic which helped her claim the crucial break to serve for the set.
The world number 10 was forced to save yet another break opportunity, this time with a solid first serve while serving for the set. An unreturnable serve ultimately sealed the first frame for the Shenzhen contender, who needed just one more set to book her place in the year-end championships.
Bencic seals the huge win
Owning the momentum and the one-set lead, it seemed as though Bencic was going to run away with the match after grabbing the confidence-boosting break in the third game. A momentary loss of focus saw Mladenovic pounce on the opportunity and roared back into contention with a big forehand return winner.
Momentum seemed to have shifted hands with the former top-10 player fending off a total of six break points in her next service games, peaking on the important points as Bencic faltered during the pivotal moments. However, the wildcard kept pushing for chances on the return, and eventually earned the reward as Mladenovic made a mess of a service game at 4-4, gifting the golden opportunity for Bencic to serve the match out.
It was a job well done for the Swiss as Mladenovic looked listless in the last game, sending consecutive returns into the net with Bencic sealing the excellent 6-3, 6-4 win.