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No. 1 Iga Swiatek comes back to beat Belinda Bencic and reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals

Tennis: Wimbledon

Jul 9, 2023; London, United Kingdom; Iga Swiatek (POL) returns a shot during her match against Belinda Bencic (SUI) on day seven at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Mandatory Credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

WIMBLEDON, England — Twice, Iga Swiatek was a single point from exiting Wimbledon on Sunday, a single point from the sort of confounding defeat at the place that gives her so much more trouble than any of the other Grand Slam tournaments.

Down a set and 6-5 in the second against Belinda Bencic, the No. 1-ranked Swiatek steeled herself and dispensed with the pair of match points. She erased the first with a booming forehand, the second with a forceful backhand, and soon enough, Swiatek was not just back in the contest, she was controlling it.

Frustrated in the late afternoon sunshine at Centre Court, so close to defeat in the early evening shadows, Swiatek managed to reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals for the first time by coming back for a 6-7 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-3 victory over the 14th-seeded Bencic.

Swiatek, who will face wild-card entry Elina Svitolina of Ukraine for a semifinal berth, extended her unbeaten run to 14 matches, which includes claiming her fourth major title at the French Open last month.

Swiatek has won three championships at Roland Garros, and one at the U.S. Open, but she never before had been past the fourth round at the All England Club. Last year, she had a 37-match winning streak snapped during a third-round Wimbledon loss.

So comfortable on the red clay of Paris, so capable on the hard courts in New York - and at the Australian Open, where she has made it to the semifinals - Swiatek is just not quite the same player yet on the grass used at the year’s third Grand Slam tournament.

So how does she feel about the green surface nowadays?

“Every day, my love is getting bigger, so hopefully I’m going to have as many days as possible to stay here and play on this court,” Swiatek said. “For sure, this is my best year on grass, so I feel really kind of motivated, because I know that even when you’re not playing 100%, the hard work is paying off.”

Svitolina, a 2019 semifinalist at Wimbledon who had a baby last October and returned to the tour this April, advanced Sunday by edging two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (11-9).

“After giving birth to our daughter, this is the second-happiest moment in my life,” Svitolina said.

The other quarterfinal on the top half of the women’s bracket will be No. 4 Jessica Pegula vs. 2019 French Open runner-up Marketa Vondrousova.

The men’s quarterfinals established Sunday were No. 7 Andrey Rublev against Novak Djokovic or No. 17 Hubert Hurkacz, and No. 8 Jannik Sinner against Roman Safiullin.

The big-hitting Bencic unfurled a right upper arm heavily wrapped in beige and white tape from her shoulder to above her elbow to deliver powerful shot after powerful shot. It was the kind of display that carried her to two medals for Switzerland - a gold in singles, a silver in doubles - at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, and a semifinal appearance at the 2019 U.S. Open.

And Swiatek frequently displayed signs of dismay.

She slapped her right thigh after ceding one point. After another, she looked up at her coach and her sports psychologist in the guest box with arms spread and palms up, as if to say, “What is happening?” Swiatek then walked behind the baseline with her back to the net and stared straight ahead at the green wall behind the Royal Box. During a changeover, she blocked everything out by draping a purple-and-green tournament towel over her head.

Swiatek certainly had her chances to move in front far earlier than she did.

Six times in the first set, she held a break point. Six times, she failed to cash in. Two came when she held set points while ahead 5-4 in the opener, but after Swiatek did not convert either, Bencic raced to a 6-1 lead in the ensuing tiebreaker before sealing it.

Swiatek headed to the locker room after that set and seemed to be back to her best immediately, finally breaking and eventually going up 3-1. But she let that advantage slip away by dropping the next three games and suddenly needed to erase the match points while behind 6-5.

Once past that key stretch, Swiatek straightened things out in the next tiebreaker.

From 2-all, she reeled off five consecutive points, the last of which was a double-fault by Bencic, to send the encounter to a third set.

And that, at long last, is when Swiatek looked like the woman who took over at No. 1 in the rankings in April 2022 and hasn’t loosened her grip on that spot.

Bencic screamed after missing a forehand to hand over a break point, then double-faulted for the 10th time to gift-wrap another 3-1 lead for Swiatek in the deciding set.

Swiatek protected that margin this time, and 23 minutes later - about an hour after being a point from losing - she was punching the air after delivering a cross-court forehand winner to end it.