Belinda Bencic is within touching distance of securing the final spot in Shenzhen but she must snap a three-match losing streak against Kristina Mladenovic at the Kremlin Cup to grasp it.
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Belinda Bencic is now one win away from the WTA Finals Shenzhen – can she overcome the last obstacle that is Kristina Mladenovic in the Kremlin Cup semifinals?
With Bencic winning and Kiki Bertens, her rival for the final open spot at the season-ending championships, losing to Mladenovic in Friday’s Kremlin Cup quarterfinals, Bencic now has an opportunity to move ahead of both Bertens and the all-but-officially-withdrawn Serena Williams into the eighth qualifying spot.
It would mean a WTA Finals debut for the Swiss player and her destiny is now on her own racquet – although that’s not to say that Mladenovic might not rip it out of her hands as she did to Bertens.
This is the seventh semifinal appearance of Bencic’s season, including final-four appearances at the US Open, Indian Wells and Madrid, and it did not come easily. After having to come back from a set down and a break down in the final set against Polona Hercog to begin her campaign, Bencic went for her third straight win against Belgian veteran Kirsten Flipkens but had to work very, very hard to edge an opening set which threatened to slip through her fingers.
Flipkens, who was serving fantastically well in the early stages and playing her finesse game to full effect, raced to a 4-1 lead before Bencic started to ramp up the aggression on return, winning five of the next six games and giving herself a chance to serve for the first set at 6-5 after a volley error from Flipkens. But she was swiftly reduced to tossing her racquet in rage after she went 15-40 down and was broken as she framed an overhead long. She regrouped in the tie-break but had to save two set points before finally edging over the line 7-6(8) to end a 67-minute set.
From there, Bencic did not look back, wrapping up the second set 6-1 and victory with it in less than half the time the first set had taken.
The Dubai champion is now 46-20 in 2019 – just the second time in her young career, and the first time since 2015, she has won 40 or more matches in a season – and is looking to reach the ninth WTA Tour final of her career as she faces off with Mladenovic on Saturday.
Kristina Mladenovic is also aiming to reach the ninth WTA Tour final of her career in Moscow, and the third one on Russian indoor hard courts after winning her maiden WTA Tour title in St Petersburg in 2017 and returning to the final in 2018, finishing runner-up to Petra Kvitova.
It’s the first time Mladenovic has won back-to-back matches at the Kremlin Cup, but she has done so in style this week, winning three matches that have gone the distance to beat Yulia Putintseva, Anastasija Sevastova and finally second-seeded Bertens. In all three cases she won the first set, dropped the second and roared back strongly in the decider.
While Mladenovic is currently clinging grimly on to a place in the lower reaches of the top 50, the Frenchwoman – a former top-10 player herself – has been very effective against top opposition in 2019, getting wins over Naomi Osaka, then world no. 1, in Dubai; then-world no. 9 Ashleigh Barty in Rome; and world no. 3 Elina Svitolina in Zhengzhou.
Bertens was the fourth top-10 scalp Mladenovic has collected this season and again, it was done in style. The world no. 8 had everything to play for but found herself completely discombobulated by Mladenovic’s aggression and variety in the first set. Bertens was able to come back in the second set as Mladenovic started to rush, looking for ways to end the point too quickly, but after a pep talk from Sascha Baijin – who advised her not to worry about her body giving out, but to stay in the point as long as she needed to in order to get the job done – Mladenovic settled to her task again and really ripped the decider out of Bertens’s hands, playing some tremendous tennis to take a double-break lead for 3-0.
Had Bertens really made Mladenovic work for everything, she might still have been able to get back into the match but even when she broke Mladenovic to get on the board at 1-5, she lacked conviction and consistent accuracy and it did not take long for the French player to get over the line to wrap up a 6-4, 2-6, 6-1 victory.
Mladenovic has not beaten top-10 players back-to-back this season – a difficult feat – but she does come into this one on a three-match winning streak against Bencic, having lost their first encounter in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 2016 but won a rematch at the same tournament a year later, a Fed Cup battle (on indoor hard courts) in 2017 and a three-set duel on clay in Rome this spring. What might make the difference in this encounter is Mladenovic’s fitness and body, which always seem to be on the verge of breaking down and which was clearly a concern for her in the quarterfinals; she will need all her stamina and to be able to stay patient and build points against Bencic, who is such a superb defender. The other significant factor is Bencic’s aggressive returning. If she can neutralize Mladenovic’s big but erratic serve and put the Frenchwoman on the back foot from the start of the rally, it will be a different match. I envision a lengthy battle, but I like Bencic’s chances to come out on top and book her place in Shenzhen as well as in the Moscow final.
Bencic vs Mladenovic Kremlin Cup tennis is live from Moscow on Saturday at 1pm local/11am BST
Bencic vs Mladenovic tennis live streaming, preview and predictions – Bencic is one win away from the WTA Finals in Moscow
Belinda Bencic is within touching distance of securing the final spot in Shenzhen but she must snap a three-match losing…
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