Belinda Bencic fought back from the brink to defeat Liudmila Samsonova in a thrilling Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open final on Sunday evening to capture her second title of the season.
Bencic looked on course for a fourth straight loss to the Russian after getting bulldozed in the first set, but the Swiss second seed toughed it out to edge a nail-biting second set tiebreak – saving three championship points – and took the decider for a 1-6, 7-6, 6-4 victory.
With the title at the inaugural tournament at Zayed Sports City’s International Tennis Centre, the 25-year-old also becomes the first player to secure the UAE double, having won the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in 2019. The secret behind her success in the Emirates? "Dates ... I really like to eat the dates," Bencic said.
Turning her attention to the match, the Swiss said: “I just tried to fight for every shot. Maybe in the end I got a little bit lucky to turn it around in the tiebreak but I'm happy with how I stayed strong and fought until the end.
"I’m super happy finally [to win] against her. It fell a little bit on my side. I’m really happy with the title, the match was really tough for a final.”
Concluding her campaign with the trophy seemed improbable for Bencic 35 minutes into the final. The Olympic champion had been utterly dominated in a seven-game opening set, with Samsonova by far the superior player.
History did not favour Bencic at that point, either. Three times these two players have previously met, three times Samsonova has taken the victory, including twice in finals. Samsonova had also previously been perfect in finals, winning all four she has competed in.
"Obviously you are aware of it, that you lost three times and now you're 1-6 down after the first set and you haven't had a shot at anything, so all you can do is play and try your best," Bencic said. "There wasn't a change in the gameplan, just took it step by step to try and make the match closer."
Yet, as the match wore on, Bencic began to gain more of a foothold until a second-set tiebreak that could have gone either way. Indeed, it very nearly tilted towards Samsonova, who had three match points to get her hands on the trophy, but Bencic dug deep to survive and ultimately pulled level to force a decider.
“The third [match point] was a really tough rally but all you can do is scramble for every shot and make her play another one," Bencic said. "I’m happy I stayed strong mentally and my team was really pushing me. Of course, I was nervous but it’s also important to swing and hit and not rely on your opponent [to make a mistake].”
The final looked poised for a tense third set when Bencic and Samsonova exchanged breaks in the third and fourth games, but another break for Bencic and a 3-2 lead proved the difference as the remainder of the set stayed on serve, the Swiss taking the title after two hours and 48 minutes when Samsonova sent a forehand into the net.
A difficult loss to take for Samsonova but she can at least console herself with a new career-high ranking, the Russian moving up to 15th on Monday.
Bencic, who won the Adelaide International title last month, now makes her way to Doha and the Qatar Open for the second leg of the Middle East swing.