Belinda Bencic has many fond memories of the UAE. It was at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, in 2019, that the Swiss player brought to an end a near four-year wait for a third WTA Tour title, the agonisingly long spell between titles two and three caused by injuries that threaten to derail her prodigious career.
Upon clinching the Dubai title, Bencic planned to celebrate with a skydive - so did she get round to leaping out of a plane? “I still didn’t do it! My boyfriend is here so I want to take him but he’s so afraid of heights." That might be a stumbling block, Belinda. "My mum gave me for Christmas not a skydive but the indoor skydiving, so I plan to do this first and then we can go for real.”
Bencic, 24, was back competing in the UAE on Thursday night when she played Tunisian superstar Ons Jabeur at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi. In the fourth edition of the tournament's one-off women's match, Jabeur won an entertaining contest 4-6, 6-3, 10-8 in a championship tiebreak.
The match in the capital concluded an unforgettable year for Bencic, who won the singles gold medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games and took silver in the doubles.
"When I think about it, I still get goosebumps," she said. "It really is a nice moment when I see pictures and videos – and I think that’s the point because it’s going to be forever. It’s great to have these memories and to have achieved such a big life and career goal.”
Bencic was rewarded for her Olympic heroics by being named Swiss Sportswoman of the Year earlier this week. While Switzerland may not produce a plethora of tennis stars, the country has given the sport a few giants of the game, including 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, five-time major winner Martina Hingis, and Stan Wawrinka, winner of three Grand Slam titles.
"I was really happy because it’s a big honour, but also in a year when so many Swiss athletes did unbelievable; we won so many medals and also in other sports like skiing we did really well," Bencic said.
"So it was nice for me to be there and contribute something to Swiss sport. It was especially nice that it was people who voted for me to win.”
Representing Switzerland on the tennis tour naturally means being in the shadow of Federer, but Bencic has earned her time in the spotlight and she hopes to have a similar impact as the greats before her.
“It’s quite unreal because I never imagined to be in that position," she aid. "Obviously, I always had tennis idols in Martina Hingis and Roger Federer and now to be also a little bit along their side in Swiss tennis, it’s very nice, and hopefully I can also be a role model for the next upcoming generation in Switzerland."
It is quite the turnaround from where Bencic found herself just a few years ago. Having reached the US Open quarter-finals at the age of 17, and breaking into the top 10 at 18, Bencic was hampered by injury, most notably a wrist issue in 2017 that kept her sidelined for five months and saw her tumble out of the top 300.
Now she is healthy and back among the top-tier of women's tennis, the world No 23 is only looking up and ahead. “I still have dreams and goals," Bencic said. "Since winning the Olympics, that relaxed me a lot so I hope I can always get a little bit closer to winning the biggest events and always give myself a chance to compete deep in tournaments.”
Bencic's opponent at MWTC was full of praise for her long-time friend and insisted all the accolades she is receiving are fully deserved.
"Belinda is such an amazing player and I’m not surprised that she took that award," world No 10 Jabeur said. "I was so happy for her when she won the gold medal this year.
"I played in Tokyo and it was very, very tough conditions, so I don’t know how she did it. It proved that she's an unbelievable player and I was proud to play against her [in Abu Dhabi].
"It is such an honour for me to have her on tour with us. She’s a really great inspiration and I hope people can see more of that from her next year."