Tennis

Bencic fights past Flipkens in Moscow to keep Shenzhen quest alive

MOSCOW, Russia – No.3 seed Belinda Bencic came back from a slow start to overcome qualifier Kirsten Flipkens 7-6(8), 6-1 in one hour and 34 minutes minutes and make her way into the Kremlin Cup semifinals – thus keeping her hopes of debuting at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen alive.

The Swiss No.1, who has now won three straight matches against Flipkens to extend her head-to-head lead to 3-1, is now just one victory away from sealing her first spot at the year-end extravaganza. Currently in 10th place in the Porsche Race to Shenzhen, a defeat of Kristina Mladenovic in tomorrow’s semifinals would ensure that Bencic leapfrogs both eighth-placed Serena Williams and ninth-placed Kiki Bertens to snatch the final berth.

The US Open semifinalist had to battle hard for the second round in a row, though. Having come back from a 0-3 final-set deficit against Polona Hercog in the second round, Bencic quickly found herself down 1-4 against Flipkens. The Belgian was serving strongly, firing down three aces in her first three service games, and was canny in using her finesse to discomfit Bencic: a beautiful volleyed lob sealed the break in the fourth game.

Bencic, however, would demonstrate her fighting spirit in solving the Flipkens riddle to roar back into the set. A titanic eight-minute game saw the 22-year-old determinedly take time away from her opponent by taking returns as early as possible – and she would be rewarded on her fourth break point as the World No.120 sent a forehand wide.

In full flow, Bencic would rattle off five out of six games to turn a 1-4 deficit into a 6-5 lead with a break of her own, captured with a brilliant backhand pass. But when it came to closing out the set from a winning position, matters got rather more complicated for the Dubai champion. With Flipkens essaying a fightback of her own, carving out a break point with a flashing pass, a smash over the baseline from Bencic would mean that the set would be decided by a tiebreak.

It would be a dramatic one: confident strikes off both wings would build a 5-2 lead for Bencic – but Flipkens would claw her way back and, much to Bencic’s frustration, would reach set point first after a double fault from the World No.10. However, a tight forehand into the net squandered that opportunity for the 33-year-old – and although another botched overhead from Bencic gave her another chance, her bold serve-and-volley attempt was caught out by a brilliant return from the Mallorca finalist. Eventually, it was Bencic who came up with two touches of magic to squeeze through the opening act: a high-octane rally finished in style with a drive volley, and then out-maneouvring Flipkens in a classic all-court point with a backhand pass.

The first set alone had lasted one hour and five minutes, and its importance had increased the longer it had gone on. With it under her belt, Bencic’s play became visibly more relaxed: anticipating all of Flipkens’ crafty patterns, the former World No.7 was able to stay a step ahead of her veteran rival as she raced towards the finishing line.

Winning 18 out of 21 points during one passage of play, Bencic stormed into a 5-0 lead with a double break, catching the former Wimbledon semifinalist out repeatedly with the depth of her returns and redirection of the ball. Though a solid hold enabled Flipkens to stem the tide and avoid the bagel, Bencic would come through with back-to-back aces and an emphatic drive volley – her 16th winner of the match – to close out the win.

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