Bencic, Kerber through to Indian Wells semis

It was sunny, breezy and chilly for the top-half quarterfinal matches on Thursday at the 2019 BNP Paribas Open. The order of play held two contrasting match-ups and neither disappointed.

[23] Belina Bencic (SUI) d [5] Karolina Pliskova (CZE) 6-3 4-6 6-3

The opening day match was the first meeting between two players on a 2019 winning streak. In terms of the BNP Paribas Open experience, Pliskova held the upper hand. On Thursday, Pliskova had her chance to reach her third semifinal in the desert, but Stadium 1 was not her territory, though, as she spoke of the difficulty of her first 2019 appearance on center stage and “losing the balls”.

Pliskova kicked off the match with a double ace statement hold. But Bencic’s aggression owned the baseline and it was not long before the 22-year-old was up 3-1. Once Bencic had the lead, she never let go. Pliskova stayed in the set, reaching 4-3, but Bencic played a very clean hold to 5-3, then broke her opponent in the next six-point service game.

The fifth-seeded Pliskova kept her composure, coming back strong in the second set. She immediately broke Bencic and took off to a 4-0 lead. Then, Bencic pulled out an ace in game five to hold 4-1 and things shifted back in her direction, as she won three games to 4-3. Pliskova knew she could not let the Swiss back in or the match would be done. The Czech defended a nine-point service game, closing in on the set.

Pliskova’s usual ace “free points” were not as effective against Bencic today. Bencic ran thru her next game with a love hold. Then the battle ensued. With close-or-go-home staring her in face, the Czech came dangerously close to that end with the score 30-40. A deuce-ad-point exchange looked like it might not end, 16-points, game, set Pliskova. And so the players marched on.

The third set had consistent holds until 4-3. Today was an oddity, as Pliskova really had the greater struggle to hold. She had the longest service game of the match, 22-points. Her final service game proved fatal. She won only one point, a break that gave Bencic a 5-3 lead. Bencic produced another solid hold, dropping just one point, and game, set, match.

The world No.23 Bencic has reached her first ever semifinal at a the BNP Paribas Open. While she is clearly happy, she is not over the top. She played with measured aggression, adjusting well to the wind conditions. She has extended her 16-match winning streak, with her father back as her coach. Bencic spoke that it works, because her father knows her better than anyone and “he knows when to say something and when to be quiet”.

There was even more on the line today. With the win, Bencic will return to a Top 20 position, where she clearly belongs.

As Bencic prepares for her semifinal against Kerber, she knows what to do — nothing. Why fix what isn’t broken? She had this to say:

I’m very confident. You know, I’m really just trying to take it one step at a time. Of course, now it’s been a few steps more. But, you know, I’m not putting pressure on myself even now. You know, I’m just playing. I said yesterday, the less I think on the court, the better it is. When you’re confident, you can really just trust your instincts and you don’t have to think about it at all. I’m definitely playing how I feel it, and it’s going well, so I’m not planning on changing that.

[8] Angelique Kerber (GER) d Venus Williams (USA) 7-6(3) 6-3

This second quarterfinal on Thursday is one we know well, with eight prior meetings and Kerber leading the head-to-head 5-3. But Kerber knew the past is the past and today she had to be prepared for anything her very capable foe could bring. Williams continued to reach for her 50th career title, but today it was not to be.

The first set went to 5-5 after four breaks of serve, including an untimely double fault from Kerber. Both women stayed aggressive with holds to set up the tiebreak. Kerber captured the lead to 3-0, then Williams began to break ground with the crowd behind her to 4-2. Kerber kept her foot on the gas, allowing only one point. After 58 minutes, the German had the first set and an edge that allowed her to step up and go for shots in the second set.

The second set began with clean holds of serve again, until 3-2. With Williams on serve, Kerber pressed a 16-point game to break, going up 4-2. While she could see the finish, Williams remained composed and produced another solid hold to 5-3. Nothing was a foregone conclusion, as history tells us, Williams can never be counted out. Knowing this, a very focused Kerber executed a flawless love hold for the match.

Statistically, Williams had only one ace and her signature power was not fully there. In press, Kerber spoke of needing to adjust her return game, as she was expecting more pace from her fellow Grand Slam champion. Kerber seemed to have more in the tank today.

An upbeat Kerber discussed her semifinal opponent:

Bencic is playing really flat and she’s going for it. She has a lot of confidence, especially from the last weeks. It will not be an easy match. It will be a battle. But I’m looking forward. I mean, this is the match I’m always looking forward to have, especially in big tournaments, semis. And, yeah, I know that I have to play aggressive and go for it tomorrow.

We’ve heard similar words from Venus this week as well. Champions relish the challenge and the opportunity to rise to the occasion and fight. With the four remaining semifinalists, we can expect more of the same.

The WTA owns Friday night at the BNP Paribas Open. with back-to-back semifinal matches, beginning at 6:30 p.m. local time.

Semifinal 1: [WC] Bianca Andreescu (CAN) vs [6] Elina Svitolina (UKR)
Semifinal 2: [23] Belinda Bencic (SUI) vs [8] Angelique Kerber (GER)

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