Junior rivals Belinda Bencic and Jelena Ostapenko clash for just the second time as pros as the sixth seed faces the 2017 French Open champion in the second round of the Australian Open on Thursday.
Belinda Bencic vs Jelena Ostapenko is live from Melbourne on Thursday 23 January at 3pm local/4am GMT
Bencic and Ostapenko, as the WTA website points out, played in the semifinals of the prestigious junior tournament Les Petites As as 13-year-olds. The two, who were both born in 1997, both won Grand Slam titles as juniors and were ranked world no. 1 and world no. 2 respectively, but their paths diverged once they turned professional.
Bencic was the first to break through to the top echelons, breaking into the top 100 in early 2014 and while Ostapenko followed suit by the end of the season, it was Bencic who made an impressively early Grand Slam quarterfinal at the 2014 US Open and rose all the way to world no. 12 in 2015 after capturing the Premier-5 Rogers Cup title.
The Swiss starlet’s upwards progress stalled, however, as she battled with various injuries, while Ostapenko streaked past her in the rankings when she made an incredible run to the French Open title in 2017 despite being ranked just inside the top 50 at world no. 47.
Ostapenko ended 2017 inside the top 10 and made the Miami Open final and the Wimbledon semifinals in 2018 only to plummet down the rankings in 2019, a season which was a torrid one for the Latvian player until she redeemed it right at the end with back-to-back WTA Tour finals reached in Linz and Luxembourg.
Bencic meanwhile started to turn things around after her ranking fell as low as world no. 312 in 2017. She ended that season back inside the top 100, but barely played for the first six months in 2018. It was 2019, as Ostapenko struggled, that Bencic flourished once more, putting together a fantastic spring hard-court run which netted her the Dubai title and saw her reach the semifinals of Indian Wells via six wins over top-10 players. The Swiss went on to make the aforementioned US Open semifinal, qualified for the WTA Finals for the first time (Ostapenko played in 2017) via a title in Moscow and started 2020 ranked world no. 8 to Ostapenko’s world no. 45.
After suffering a surprise defeat to Anna Blinkova in Shenzhen in the first week of the season, Bencic warmed up for Melbourne by reaching the quarterfinals in Adelaide last week, beating slumping Daria Kasatkina (also 1997-born) and Julia Goerges before bowing out to Danielle Collins 3-6, 1-6. Seeded sixth at the Australian Open, she began her campaign with a 6-3, 7-5 victory over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova – a former top-30 player currently ranked outside the top 200, who had won her only previous match against Bencic – after coming back from 0-3 down in the second set.
‘It was a pretty tough match. I feel like always when I play her it’s pretty tough.
‘I’m really happy. Of course, first rounds is always difficult. You’re trying to find your rhythm, your kind of groove. I’m just really happy I won today and have another shot in the next match.’
Ostapenko was scheduled to play the ASB Classic in Auckland in the run-up to the Australian Open, but pulled out citing personal reasons, and revealed last week that her father, a former professional footballer, had passed away.
Despite the tragic loss, the Latvian had little difficulty in opening her campaign with a 6-1, 6-4 win over qualifier Liudmila Samsonova, serving 11 aces, saving every break point she faced and hitting 27 winners to 22 unforced errors.
Bencic will be a considerably more difficult opponent. Ostapenko’s biggest weakness is her erratic serve, which plagues her game with double faults (25 in a Beijing clash with Karolina Pliskova alone, although it doesn’t necessarily stop her beating even top-10 players on her day, as that China Open match demonstrated). Bencic should be able to put real pressure on that shot with her aggressive returning, and it’s hard to believe it won’t break down. It’s also been very windy at the Australian Open, which won’t help Ostapenko. Both are emotional, tempestuous players, but Bencic is better at shedding negative emotion and rebounding; on the other hand, Ostapenko has won every hard-court match they played against each other as juniors and their only meeting as pros, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1 – but that clash was Bencic’s last match before an injury break. Ostapenko may well take a set with her fearsome shotmaking, but over the course of the match, Bencic’s excellent returning and ability to absorb and redirect pace should wear down her more erratic opponent.