Seventeen years ago, a 16-year-old Martina Hingis wowed the Parisien crowds with an elegant, artistic brand of tennis, sweeping aside experienced rivals like Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Monica Seles with a precocity rarely seen before in the sport.
Her youth eventually proved her undoing in the Roland Garros final against the dogged Croatian Iva Majoli, but she bounced back to finish the 1997 season with her hands on three Grand Slam trophies. It remains the closest any player has come to achieving the calendar Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988.
Since Hingis’ days, tennis fans have come to expect relatively little from the teenagers who once dominated the game. The increased physicality of women’s tennis and the strict rules which limit the number of tournaments they can play before 18 – an attempt to prevent burnout – have made it nigh impossible to become a world beater at such a tender age.
In Hingis' footsteps
But in Belinda Bencic, Switzerland have unearthed another prodigy.
As fate would have it, her talent has blossomed under the experienced eye of Melanie Molitor, Hingis’ mother and former coach who has nurtured her since she was four years old. Bencic made her WTA debut aged 15 and, after winning the French Open and Wimbledon junior titles in the past year, her ascent has only steepened.
Now ranked 81, an increase of almost 350 places since April 2013, she made her main draw debut at Roland Garros on Sunday, losing 6-4, 6-1 to Venus Williams. But at one point she led the seven-time Grand Slam champion by a break of serve and with some better decision-making, may well have taken the opening set.
Her performance was watched with interest by Hingis, who now coaches 2014 Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki.
“Belinda’s got a very bright future,” Hingis told Al Jazeera. “You’re not really nervous when you’re 17. You don’t feel any pressure. You’re just excited to go out there and play and you don’t think too much about it. You’re not doubting yourself or worrying about anything that’s gone on in the past.”
Intimidation? What intimidation?
I was always very competitive as a small child and sometimes I just get a little emotional on the court. But I know I need to learn to be a bit more calm and not get too many more warnings
The fearlessness of youth was written all over the way Bencic took the match to Williams on Suzanne Lenglen, drawing cries of ‘Allez Belinda’ from the crowd with some fierce backhand winners.
The Williams sisters have been known to crush opponents just by their reputation in the past but when I asked Bencic if she had been intimidated by the prospect of facing such an illustrious opponent on a show court, she seemed almost surprised by the question.
“Why would I be?” Bencic replied. “Not at all. I know I can compete on big courts against big players. Of course I was a little nervous ahead of the match but not more than before any other match.”
At the Australian Open she produced a similarly assured performance against eventual champion Li Na who compared her to the young Hingis.
“She was using a lot of my power to move me and get me running,” Na has laughingly said. “I didn’t like it. It was exactly like Hingis.”
You don’t have to look far to find similarities between the pair. Bencic may lack Hingis’ feathery touch and anticipation at the net but rather than being another ball-bashing clone, she relies on her court-craft just as much as her ability to let rip. She is also adept at counter-punching from the back.
“It’s part of my game to not just hit the ball but play smart and try to out-think and outplay my opponent,” she said. “I think when you combine smart thinking with some powerful shots, that’s the most effective way to play.”
There’s still plenty of work to be done, especially on the mental side of the game. Bencic can be prone to bouts of petulance, just like the young Hingis and her racket frame. Even her cap repeatedly bore the brunt of her frustration as the match slipped away against Williams. And she looked a little embarrassed when the subject came up.
“I was always very competitive as a small child and sometimes I just get a little emotional on the court. But I know I need to learn to be a bit more calm and not get too many more warnings.”
If she ever needs advice, she has the perfect person to turn to: Hingis has seen virtually everything over the past two decades on the circuit.
“She knows I’m on hand to provide advice whenever she needs it but she’s progressing extremely rapidly,” Hingis added. “You just have to grow up quickly on the tour. It’s part of the process. You’re constantly playing against girls who can be over ten years older so to live with them, you have no choice.”
Bencic has certainly grown up rapidly in the past twelve months. At Wimbledon 2013, she was a wide-eyed teenager, accompanied by her father to interviews and still star-struck at sharing a locker room with the likes of the Williams sisters and Maria Kirilenko, players she had on her bedroom wall not so long ago.
But things have changed, she now handles the media alone and the likes of Kirilenko and Sara Errani have been added to a growing list of high profile scalps.
“Initially, everything was new but now I’m used to it all,” she said. “Seeing all these players who I’d watched on TV, it was like ‘Oh my god’. But now I’ve had wins against lots of them. I’ve improved everything over the past twelve months and I’m really happy with how it’s going.”