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The Kremlin Cup was an asset to Belinda Bencic

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke - USA TODAY Sports

Belinda Bencic wasn’t a Kremlin asset this week. The Kremlin Cup was an asset for Bencic. In Russia, the tournament doesn’t have to use you. YOU can use the tournament. Bencic did that, and as a result, she will play in the WTA Finals for the first time.

Bencic won the Kremlin Cup in Moscow with a three-set win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Sunday’s final. She will pack her bags for Shenzhen, China, and the WTA Finals.

The achievement — as with so many other non-major-tournament feats in tennis — doesn’t guarantee stardom at the highest level of the sport, but it certainly makes it a lot more possible to envision. This doesn’t secure Bencic’s place in the top tier of women’s tennis, but it certainly represents a significant step toward that goal.

Throughout 2019, I and anyone else who regularly writes about women’s tennis have discussed the WTA Tour’s pursuit of stability and rivalries that stick. The sport is in a good place but can use some confrontations which gain traction and resonance in the public eye.

This process of gaining “stickiness” (a good thing, just in case you’re unsure) and traction depends in part on players such as Bencic remaining formidable and developing more consistency.

Quite simply, then, a WTA Finals berth — won in a vigorous competition with Kiki Bertens — allows Bencic to say that she belongs on the big stage. Win or lose in Shenzhen, merely being there will give Bencic an increased awareness of what it is like to breathe the thinner air of elite competition.

You might rightly and reasonably ask, “Matt, doesn’t Bencic already know what it is like to face elite competition?”

Of course she does… but the point of gaining even more familiarity with the top players on tour, in a very specific context such as the eight-player year-end championship event, is to convince herself that she, Belinda Bencic, belongs in the top eight on a regular, long-term basis.

This is the bigger point about WTA rivalries gaining traction at the top tier of women’s tennis: The more each gifted young player can be comfortable in her own skin against elite opposition, the more we will see elite rivalries emerge.

I can legitimately question how comfortable Bencic is in the face of elite competition because she reached only one major semifinal this year. It is a limitation of so many WTA players who are not in the final years of their careers: Only two made more than one major semifinal in 2019, and one of them was Serena Williams, who will not (we think) be part of this sport in seven or eight years.

Bencic joins Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka and Ashleigh Barty as part of the under-25-year-old contingent on tour which will be challenged to become more regular major semifinalists in 2020 and the next few years after that.

Bencic definitely took a big step forward by clinching a WTA Finals berth, a month and a half after making her first major semifinal. She certainly knows she CAN become an elite player on a regular basis.

The question is: Does she KNOW she is an elite player?

Knowing and believing are two different things. Bencic’s trip to the WTA Finals is an attempt to make that transition from believing to knowing, from thinking she is elite to being certain of the fact… and playing accordingly in important moments for a full year, or something close to it.

The WTA Finals represent a great way for Belinda Bencic to close a very positive WTA season in which she climbed from No. 55 to No. 7… but this upward climb is just the beginning.

An athlete from an alpine country knows how high a mountaintop truly is.

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Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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