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Bencic comes of age just in time for her fierce duel

By Paul Newman

Published 23/01/2016

Maria Sharapova of Russia serves in her third round match against Lauren Davis
Maria Sharapova of Russia serves in her third round match against Lauren Davis

Belinda Bencic's coach, Melanie Molitor, does not often travel to tournaments, but in her absence the world No 13 often turns to a useful replacement. Molitor is the mother of Martina Hingis, who is back on the circuit enjoying great success in doubles and helps Bencic whenever she can.

"When it's not working very well in a match I try to make eye contact with her," Bencic said.

"She really has a positive something around her, so I really enjoy it when she watches my matches. I tend to play well."

She added: "Martina always tries to help me a lot, which I'm very thankful for.

"When she finds time away from her doubles she always comes to watch. We also talk a lot about tactics."

Bencic, who at 18 is the most exciting young talent in the women's game, is through to the fourth round of the Australian Open here for the first time thanks to a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Kateryna Bondarenko.

The Swiss player's next match will be a fascinating meeting of the generations as she takes on Maria Sharapova.

Despite the 744 matches Sharapova has played, her 35 singles titles and her $36.5m (£25.5m) in prize money, you sometimes need to remind yourself that the Russian is still only 28. It is 12 years since she swept through the All England Club at the age of 17 to win Wimbledon.

With Bencic (pictured) on the horizon, Sharapova was clearly expecting a question about her own senior status after recording the 600th victory of her career when she beat Lauren Davis 6-1, 6-7, 6-0.

"I think this is the time where you say age is just a number," the Russian laughed.

Asked how she keeps herself motivated, Sharapova said: "I really love what I do.

"Although I'd love to sit on the beach and read a book and drink margaritas, after a few days I get bored.

"When I miss a couple of weeks or I'm away with injury, I get back on the court and it's funny.

"In those first few moments you feel a bit rusty, but the feeling of hitting the ball, even though you're not playing points, when that comes back to me, I'm like: 'This is what I love to do.' There's no better feeling."

Despite her youth, Bencic is playing her third full year on the tour.

The 2013 Wimbledon junior champion made great progress in her first season among the seniors, stalled briefly, but has come back strongly. There was a period when she regularly lost three-set matches but after working hard on her fitness she has not lost one since May.

"I don't know if it's only fitness, but also the focus and the belief that you can really play the best at the most important points and you really can't do any stupid mistakes in the third set when it's 4-4," Bencic said.

Twelve months ago she lost in the first round here, but is clearly a more mature player now.

"I just feel like I'm not as nervous when I go to the court," she said.

"When I played last year I was very nervous. I didn't really know what to do on the court

"Now I've got a lot of confidence. Just when I go to the court, I stay more calm and really try to think more what I have to do.

"For sure I think my serve has got better, which helps a lot in the game."

Daria Kasatkina is another 18-year-old of great promise, as she showed when beating Venus Williams in Auckland a fortnight ago, but the Russian was brought down to earth by the former world No 1's sister in the third round here. Serena Williams needed only 44 minutes to crush Kasatkina 6-1, 6-1.

Williams, who was extending her own record of matches in the main draw here to 80, began the tournament with fears about her fitness after she pulled out of her only warm-up event with a knee injury, but she has looked better with each match.

"I definitely think I played better today," she said. "Everything I've been trying to work on was kind of clicking."

Another unseeded Russian, 21-year-old Margarita Gasparyan, will be the world No 1's next opponent.

Williams remembered how well the world No 58 played when they met in the first round at Wimbledon last summer.

"I think she qualified at Wimbledon so she's obviously made leaps and bounds since then, gained a lot of confidence," Williams said.

"She has a great forehand up the line.

"She has a good serve. She mixes up the ball well. She's here to play well and win. So am I, so we'll see what happens."

Belfast Telegraph

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