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?

Continue reading on CultureMap.

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.


The headline induced heart palpations in drive-thru burger fans across Texas and neighboring states … "Texas-based Whataburger sells to new owner amid expansion plans." While that sounds unsettling, the real concern is:

What does this mean to Whataburger's everyday (sometimes twice-a-day) customer in Texas?

In the immediate future — like tomorrow, next week, next year — probably very little. But in the long run, all bets are off. Most likely, there will be significant changes at your local Whataburger over the next three to five years.

Whataburger is now owned by a private equity company (Chicago's BDT Capital Partners), which may not know a Chop House Cheddar Burger from a Whatacatch Sandwich — and doesn't understand that when you're stuck in morning traffic on I-45, nothing beats a Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit.

That investment company bought Whataburger for only one reason: to make money. Shocking, that's what investment companies do. They are not fast food philanthropists. They're financial killers who want to see a return on their investment.

What's next?

So don't be surprised if they take Whataburger national. That's my big takeaway. It may mean Whataburger may have less Texas on its menu in the future.

The new owners are buying a very successful or stagnant company, depending on how you crunch the numbers. According to QSR Magazine, the bible of the fast food industry, Whataburger is only the No. 22 fast food chain in the U.S. — with total sales of $2.2 billion for its 821 restaurants across 10 states.

But, more important, Whataburger has the second highest sales per store, $2.7 million. That beats the average McDonald's, Taco Bell, Burger King, Wendy's, etc. — the whole bunch of national biggies. Only Chick-fil-A has higher sales per store, a printing press $4 million.

What a deal?

If Whataburger is so successful on a per-store basis, why did the owners sell? Two factors, one probably, one definitely. In Godfather terms, the investment company probably made them an offer they couldn't refuse. While Whataburger has phenomenal sales per unit, it was growing at a very slow rate — only 15 new restaurants in 2017. That same year, Chick-fil-A opened 140 new restaurants. Taco Bell opened 168 new units. Domino's expanded by 216 locations. Popeyes popped the lid on 147 places.

Continue reading on CultureMap to learn about how the rising price of beef could impact burger chains.

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