SWISS PRECISION

Ken Hoffman sets up tennis star with 15 questions

Tennis star Belinda Bencic takes a swing at Hoffman's queries. Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

Belinda Bencic is in top form, finally, working her way back to the Top 10 of women's tennis after injuries sidelined her for much of 2016 and 2017. The Swiss star won a tournament last week in Las Vegas and she’s the No. 1 seed at this week's Oracle Challenger Series at Rice University.

Talk about a fan-friendly event — parking and entry are free — with big name players from both the men’s and women’s tour in action. Bencic set to play Allie Kiick of the U.S. on November 13.

Bencic, who reached No. 7 in the world as an 18-year-old in 2016, has a remarkable record against the sport’s brightest names. She boasts a winning record against former No. 1’s Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber. She’s beaten No. 1’s Garbine Muguruza and both Serena and Venus Williams. In 2015, she won the Rogers Cup in Canada, defeating four Top 10 players, Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, Serena and Simona Halep along the way.

Bencic, still only 21, debuted with the Swiss Federation Cup team in 2012, and won the French Open and Wimbledon girls title that year. Two years later, she made the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, beating two Top 10 players. Oh, and for the past two years, she’s represented Switzerland in the international Hopman Cup tournament in Australia. Her partner in mixed doubles? Some guy named Federer.

As Houston's leading tennis journalist, I had to ask Bencic the tough questions. We sat down after her practice session Monday, November 12. Usually, I limit my questions to 10, but since tennis is the greatest sport ever... she gets 15.

Ken Hoffman: Can you settle the Great Tennis Debate? Is a tennis ball yellow or green? Houston barbecue artiste Yonny Demeris constantly tells me the ball is green. I think he needs to wear goggles when he's near the restaurant's smoker. I say yellow. So?

Belinda Bencic: It’s yellow. Green? No, it’s bright yellow. (Note: If you look at a can of tennis balls, the label says “optic yellow.”)

KH: How do you explain your success against Top 10 players?

BB: I’m not sure why. Everybody is intimidated the first time they play the top players, of course. I was very young my first times. I was 16 when I played Petra Kvitova. I was 17 when I played Serena the first time. I lost both matches. But the next time I played them, I knew what to expect. So I was able to focus on what I had to do.

I definitely love the big crowd and the atmosphere of big matches. I don’t have a problem with being intimidated. Also, you’re much freer when you play the top players. If you lose, nothing happens. If you win, wow, it’s amazing. So I go on the court with a much easier attitude when I play them.

KH: Tennis has a new rule: now, players have to get their own towels from back of the court. Ball kids are no longer running back and forth with towels, they can concentrate on retrieving balls. I think fans will like the new rule because they don’t have to watch some players dry off after every point. It's kind of ridiculous. How do you feel about the new rule?

BB: There are two sides to the story. Sometimes players go to the towels because they want a break. But there are times when you play in Cincinnati and it’s 89 percent humidity, and you need a towel. I’m sweating a lot in Cincinnati. I won’t mind getting my own towel. But it’s a difficult situation now because there’s another rule that we have only 25 seconds between points.

Between points, you need time to breathe, to take the towel, to take the balls and start the point. We get fined if we take longer than 25 seconds. It has to be clear, after a long rally, the referee can’t say you have 25 seconds. The referee can let you have a little extra time. I think the 25-second rule is okay, but the rule has to have a brain.

KH: I play tennis for fun. You play tennis for work. Is tennis fun for you?

BB: It is fun, but not every day. Sometimes there are days when you don’t want to play. A person like you, when you don’t want to play, you just don’t play. But we have to go to work every day. I definitely appreciate that I do something I like, so I’m having fun in my job.

I think most of the people in the world are not happy with their job, so I’m very happy to be a tennis player. But everybody has their days when they just don’t want to go to work.

KH: Tennis is weird. It’s the only sport I can think of where opponents dress in the same locker room and warm up with each other. You don’t see LeBron James and Stephen Curry doing layup drills together before a game. How do you stop your opponent from eavesdropping on your coach talking with you?

BB: It is strange. Soccer teams don’t see each other before the match. They have their own locker rooms and their own warmup area. In tennis, you’re in the same shower, the same locker room, you may even share the same warmup court. It’s weird, but I’ve been doing it since I was small, so I’m used to it. When I think about how other sports do it, yes, tennis is weird.

As for eavesdropping on your opponents, we try not to talk tactics in front of other players. One physical therapist may work with a lot of players at a tournament. When you walk in the locker room, he may ask, ‘How’s your foot?’ in front of your opponent, so they know you have a foot injury. It’s not ideal, but unfortunately, it’s like that. Before a match, I just block everything out and I don’t talk to my opponent.

KH: Here’s something else that’s weird about tennis. It’s the only sport where opponents are wearing the identical uniform. If you stand back from the TV, and you’re not familiar with the players, it’s difficult to tell them apart.

BB: Everybody has the sponsors. Nike will have a new collection and you have to wear that collection at a tournament. If you’re a top player like Serena or Sharapova, you have your own line and no one else is wearing it. If you’re not at that level, you get what everybody else gets. So many players are wearing the same thing. I’m fortunate because Nike gave me a line that only a few other players are wearing. It’s a line for younger generation players.

KH: You play tournaments around the world. What is your favorite city?

BB: New York! New York has everything, the shopping, just everything. You can go where there’s lot of people, go to the park, yes, the pizza. It’s a very special city, I feel the energy when I’m there. I really want to go to New York City when it’s Christmas.

KH: Do you ever wake up and have no idea what city you’re in?

BB: All the time. I wake up in a new bed and ask myself, ‘Where am I? Oh, I’m in Tyler, Texas or another city for another tournament.'  Thank God I’m not a singer, where every night is a different city. With me, it’s just every week is different.

KH: Switzerland is right in the middle of everything in Europe. How many languages do you speak? When you talk to the crowd, is it difficult to be funny in different languages?

BB: I speak English, German, Swiss German, Slovakian and I understand French a little, but not enough for me to speak it. Back home with my friends, I speak Swiss German. With my parents and family, we speak Slovakian. Humor is hard. Sometimes I try to make a joke and it doesn’t go well. Plus you don’t know local expressions and funny words. But I’m getting more comfortable with English.

KH: This is winter for Houston. It’s about 55 degrees and overcast. What’s the craziest weather you’ve played a match in?

BB: In April, in Prague, we played a match and it was zero degrees Celsius (32 F) and snowing. When my opponent was serving and looking up, I could see her breath and the snow flakes coming down.

KH: You’re not a grunter, but a lot of women players are. Do you think grunting gives a player an unfair advantage?

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Jovan Abernathy is an international marathoner and blogger. Check out her new blog, HTown Run Tourist. Follow her on Twitter @jovanabernathy. Instagram @HTownRunTourist. Facebook @jovanabernathy. Join her facebook group: H-Town Run Tourist

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As I explored the emotion of curiosity, it led me to change my behavior. Where I might have rushed to this place and to the next, I took it slower. Where, usually, I would have just assumed that I already knew, I found myself asking more questions. When I asked more questions, I had to acknowledge that I did not already know, so I practiced listening. As I listened more, I felt compelled to show more appreciation to the person who interrupted their busy day to educate me. This made me feel grateful.

I took that gratitude and wanted to share with others. It blew my mind when people would say that they hated Houston. It was boring. The people are mean and it was ugly. And even more shocking was Houston is not walkable. Instead of getting offended, I decided to do my part in brightening up the day of the Houstonians who were stuck in a rut. Who saw and did the same things day after day. I didn't judge because I knew they could get out of that rut by simply deciding that today they do something different. I braced myself for rejection, but put myself out there to share the wonderful things that I had learned about Houston. Given the chance, the vast majority, was ready to learn a different way. This made me proud.

It is true that 2020 has been full of disasters. These are opportunities if we choose to see them that way. If anything that COVID-19 taught me the answer was not MORE, but it is LESS. We have the tendency to take on too much, we had the unique opportunity to take on less. Thus, instead of going to exhaustion, we had the opportunity to rest.

Then, the tragedy of the death of Houston's own George Floyd happened. It could not have happened at a worse time. My heart goes out to his family. Some might use it as an opportunity to work out their own frustrations by causing more problems with violence and looting. My hope is that whatever happens will be an expression of appropriate sadness, but with Houston's best attributes; curiosity, gratitude, and pride. Instead of LESS it is time for MORE. MORE curiosity. To see if Houston's law enforcement cares about the well-being of Houston's black community and make changes in protocols. MORE gratitude. For the opportunity to express the frustration in a peaceful way. MORE pride. To not destroy this city and give it over to violence possibly doing more damage to the economics of business owners. We can see this as the opportunity to take time to heal.

Houston has changed. As I restart my exploration, I'm not looking for LESS. I'm looking for MORE this time. I'm looking with MORE curiosity. Because I know that we have even MORE to show each other. I'm looking with MORE gratitude because we have endured so much already and there are better times ahead. And, I'm looking with MORE pride because just as we did it before, we still have it in us to do it again. I have one request: if you see me in the streets, promise me that you will say hello.

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