The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Lindsay Gibbs, February 26, 2019

Belinda Bencic is back — Dubai wrap-up — catching up with Nicole Gibbs

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Welcome back, Belinda

Back in 2014, when I was a freelance sports reporter living in Greensboro, North Carolina, I made one of my favorite reporting trips and drove down to Charleston, South Carolina for the tournament formerly known as the Family Circle Cup. (BTW, if you’re a WTA fan — which, if you’re not, what are you even doing here? — this tournament is heaven on earth.)

Anyways, this is where I first got a glimpse of Belinda Bencic in person, the 17-year-old Swiss sensation who dominated in juniors, and was just turning pro. In Charleston, she made her first WTA semifinal, and I was soundly impressed with pretty much everything about her. (You can read my reflections from the time on The Changeover, a tennis blog I co-founded many years ago, back when the internet was fun.)

Back then, I asked Bencic a very basic question about where she thought she’d be in five years. She wisely didn’t play along with my nonsensical hypothetical. There was no predicting the future, for either one of us. Her journey has been a volatile one. In 2015, she beat four top-10 players on the way to winning the Rogers Cup in Toronto. In 2016, she reached her career-high ranking of No. 7. Then she was hit with a slump, a slew of injuries, a surgery on her wrist, and essentially had to press the reset button on her career. She split with her coach — who happened to be her father — and searched for greener pastures. She eventually rejoined her father, and began an impressive comeback. But still, she had fallen pretty far off the radar, while other young players, such as Naomi Osaka, seized the spotlight.

But this week in Dubai, Bencic was back. She defeated four top 10 players in a row —Aryna Sabalenka, Simona Halep, defending champion Elina Svitolina, and Petra Kvitova in the final — saving multiple match points and coming back from the brink time after time. Her fitness, shotmaking, speed, versatility, and guile were all on display, and it was a reminder of just how deadly her game can be when all things are clicking. And, oh right, she turns 22 next month. She’s still so young! It was, truly, a joy to watch.

I’m not going to keep this long, because I’m really excited about my interview below with Nicole Gibbs, and I want you to read all of it, but I will say: tennis is better with Bencic in the mix, and I hope that she stays healthy.

This Week in Women’s Tennis!

I’m going to copy our fabulous soccer master Annie Peterson to start off: Here we go and there are a lot! Reminder: The underlined words are the links. CLICK these! Clicks = Attention from editors, producers, and webmasters. If you want to push out stuff you’ve written or read, email me!

Alison Van Uytvanck won Budapest for the second year in a row — this time with Kirsten Flipkens as her coach!

Ekaterina Alexandrova and Vera Zvonareva won doubles in Budapest. Good week all around for Alexandrova, who made the semis in singles as well. Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova took the doubles title in Dubai. Hsieh, too, made the semis in singles!

Relatedly: Reem Abulliel of Sport 360 caught up with Hsieh last week, and it’s a must-read. WHAT A DELIGHT.

Last week I mischaracterized Abulleil’s interview with Naomi Osaka as an exclusive, but it was actually a roundtable with other reporters. I apologize for the error. However, you should still be reading everything Abulleil writes. Here she is on Bencic’s win, which apparently means it’s time to jump out of a plane?

Great look from WTA Insider’s Courtney Nguyen on the consistency of Serena and Simona.

Petra Kvitova takes a much-deserved spot atop the race to Singapore.

My two favorite hashtags: #petrasvictims and #belindasvicitms. We are not worthy.

Serena presented at the Oscars; then she and Maria both (separately) hit up the Vanity Fair party. Everyone looked fabulous, of course.

I don’t care what anyone says: This cartoon is very explicitly racist.

This week: Abierto Mexicano TELCEL presentado por HSBC in Acapulco, where the top seed is Sloane Stephens; and the Oracle Challenger Series – Indian Wells.

Tweet of the Week

Five at IX: Interview with Nicole Gibbs

Last week, former Stanford tennis star Nicole Gibbs (no relation) — who reached a career-high WTA ranking of No. 68 in 2016, and is currently ranked No. 139 — decided at the last minute to enter a small tennis tournament in her backyard, the ITF World Tennis Tour W25 in Rancho Santa Fe, California. The 25-year-old has been struggling a bit lately, and thought it would give her chance to work on some things in her game that she’d been tinkering with in practice. The gamble paid off, and she won the title.

After her practice in Indian Wells, Nicole (I’ve got to stick with first names on this one) spoke with me on the phone about the recent changes she’s made in her game, her fitness improvements, how she stays motivated, her upcoming wedding, and mental health. She was an absolute delight, and so open and honest, so I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!

Lindsay: You said you entered the tournament last week to work on some of the changes you’ve recently made in your game. What elements, in particular, did you want to focus on?

Nicole: I actually called [my coach, Chris Tontz] after losing first round in Midlands … because I was pretty frustrated with how I was feeling on court more than anything else. It wasn’t even so much like, ‘Oh, I’m frustrated l lost.’ It was just like, you know, I’m really not enjoying the way that I’m playing tennis right now. And so we kind of-put our heads together and said, you know, how can we bring a little bit more enjoyment to my game style and and get me in a place where I’m really excited to compete again?

We looked at where I thought I was breaking down in matches over the past two years. I think I’ve been really trying to adapt my game to be like, perfectly suited to the WTA, whether that means blasting the ball from the baseline or, you know, sacrificing a little bit of defense in order to try to play a more offensive game style.

And I kind of said, ‘Well, what if we flipped the script on that a little bit, go back to what I know I’m comfortable doing and then try to add offense in a different way?’ And so we basically added a little bit more shape to my groundstroke, made defending and neutralizing in the point a priority for me, and then are relentlessly looking for ways for me to get to the net during the point. So just reshaping the way that I’m thinking about point play, and the way I’m opening up the court to finish point offensively.

Lindsay: I know you’ve dealt with some nagging injuries. How are you feeling physically?

Nicole: I actually feel fantastic right now. If you had told me a year ago that I would play two singles matches and a doubles match on the Friday of a tournament and end up winning the tournament I don’t think I would’ve believe you. My body one year ago I don’t think could have handled that. But recently I’ve made a really exciting hire, I added this trainer, Danny Ciccolini.

He has, um, I would say a very alternative look at fitness from what I’m used to. It’s really non impact driven. We do a bunch of stuff called animal flow, which is kind of like adapted yoga to be a little bit more targeted for strength and stability. And I would say I’ve just been like ultra consistent with my training for the last three months or so in a way that I wasn’t able to be when I was training with more impact. You know, I would have three good training days and then have to sit out two, because I was nursing injuries. And with Danny I feel like we have really good routines and I’ve just gotten really strong.

Lindsay: You were inside the top 100 for a couple years, and now there have been a couple of years where you have been knocking on the door and unable to get back. How tough is that mentally to deal with as an athlete?

Nicole: Yeah, I think it’s super tough. I think that’s the number one most challenging thing that I’m being faced with is just, how do you get over that mental hurdle? Like you said, it’s not as though I fallen off the face of the earth to like 500 — in a way that would be kind-of a break and like an opportunity to reset. But there are still points coming off all the time. You’re still kind of like defending your turf, but then you’re also like, I’m not where I want to be. And it’s just this constant push-pull mentally.

It’s easier said than done, but you have to let it go and you just have to find a way to have enjoyment with whatever level you’re playing the game at, because if you’re not enjoying it at the level that you’re at, you’re never going to get to a higher level because you’re just going to tap out when it gets tough — or, you know, not play that extra tournament, or go play that extra tournament when it doesn’t make sense for you. So just finding a place of balance is a really big priority for me this year, especially given that I’m getting married in November, I’m taking slightly different attitude toward it and put me as the person first as much as possible.

Lindsay: Speaking of your wedding, what’s your favorite or and least favorite part of wedding planning?

Nicole: Oh my gosh, my favorite has been, honestly, we’re doing a destination wedding in Mexico. So the scouting has been really a blast. And I was kind-of unpleasantly surprised by dress shopping, which is like kind of a weird thing to pull out, and be like, I didn’t like that. But, you know, I think you get inundated with this media, like you’re going to find this magical dress that makes you look like a different person. And, it’s just like any other shopping trip that you go on, where you see the Instagram models and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful!’ And then you put it on and you’re like, ‘Wow, I look like an oompa-looompa.’ So for me that has been, you know, the less fun component of it. I think I finally did find a dress but there were a few appointments where I was just like, ‘Oh my god.’

Lindsay: You’ve been really open in the past year or so about mental health and your struggles. So my final question is, what advice would you give to others who are having struggles with their own mental health?

Nicole: Yeah, I mean, I think number one is just keep soldiering on and make sure that you’re building a support network that is going to serve your best interests. So surrounding yourself with people who, A) know what you’re going through and, B) know how to be there for you.

I think those are really hard relationships to find and cultivate. But if you can cultivate them, I think it can make all of the difference. I’ve been so fortunate to have a fiance that is just like the most understanding person and so I feel like I have a leg up in that sense but you know, even for me I’ve been trying to kind of build up my network of people that I know I can lean on in tough times, because you don’t want to go to the same person over and over again either.

And yeah, just just keep soldiering on. It’ll turn around.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Lindsay Gibbs, @Linzsports ThinkProgress
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.