After a superb 2019 season, top seed Belinda Bencic hopes to make a winning start to 2020 as she faces Anna Blinkova in Shenzhen.
Bencic vs Blinkova is live from Shenzhen on Tuesday 7 January at 11am local/3am GMT
World no. 8 Bencic comes into 2020 looking to maintain the momentum she built up over a career-best season in 2019, as she leads the field at the International-level Shenzhen Open.
While Bencic’s title haul in 2019 mirrored the one she achieved in 2015 – one Premier-5 title, one Premier – and she did not manage to exceed her career-high ranking of world no. 7 from February 2016, she reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at the US Open, qualified for the WTA Finals for the first time and compiled a 51-23 win-loss record throughout the year, going 11-8 against top-10 players and putting together a six-match winning streak against top-10 players during her stellar spring run, which saw her claim the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships title and make the semifinals at Indian Wells.
Although Bencic started 2019 at a relatively healthy ranking of world no. 55, having worked her way back from a nadir of world no. 312 in September 2017 after back and foot injuries, she won the award for the WTA Comeback Player of the Year in recognition of the journey she had undergone to make it back to the top-10 ranking she first achieved as a precocious teenager.
Now 22 and having ended a lengthy WTA title drought in spectacular style in 2019, Bencic has plenty to defend in 2020 but plenty of room for growth as well. This time last year, Bencic was playing (and winning) the now sadly defunct Hopman Cup with Roger Federer, a big achievement but not one that came with ranking points, before reaching the semifinals of the Hobart International. While defending those points would be nice, Bencic is surely hoping that whatever she does in Shenzhen will give her the best opportunity possible to surpass her third-round Australian Open finish – a straight-sets defeat to Petra Kvitova – from 12 months ago.
With Garbine Muguruza among potential quarterfinal opponents in Shenzhen and home favourite Wang Qiang also in her half, Bencic does not have the easiest draw but if she can get past Anna Blinkova in the first round, she will face Duan Ying-Ying or Zarina Diyas for a place in the last eight – opponents she should be well able to defeat.
Blinkova will be hoping to start 2020 with her first win over a top-10 player in five attempts. The Russian, born 18 months after Bencic, also recorded her career-best season in 2019: Having broken into the top 100 for the first time at the very end of 2018, Blinkova reached a career high of world no. 59 almost a year later.
It was thanks to a year of extreme hard work, with Blinkova playing a healthy 27 tournaments over the season, only losing her opening match at four of them. While she did play a few ITF events on clay and grass, she did much of her work at WTA Tour level, albeit often in qualifying. Winning the WTA 125k in New Haven, Blinkova successfully qualified for seven tournaments throughout the season, including the French Open, and towards the end of the year made semifinals in Guangzhou and Luxembourg, losing to Sofia Kenin and Jelena Ostapenko respectively.
While Blinkova has yet to beat a top-10 player, she came the closest she has so far when she took a set from Naomi Osaka in a 4-6, 7-6(5), 2-6 defeat to the defending champion in the first round of the US Open. I was very impressed with Blinkova’s ball-striking in that match, and thought she played very well, but the same tactic is unlikely to be so effective against Bencic. Facing Osaka, it made sense for Blinkova to go toe-to-toe with a similarly powerful player and hope to come out on top. But Bencic is supremely adept at soaking up pace and power from her opponents and returning with great depth and consistency. She’s also prone to a sprinkling of extremely erratic days, but it’s not as if she’s playing an opponent in Blinkova who has more match-fitness as neither woman has so far played in 2020. Bencic should be able to outsteady and outclass Blinkova to reach the second round in Shenzhen.