Belinda Bencic aims to use Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships as a springboard to more success

Winning title last year helped Swiss relaunch career after injury woes and finish campaign as WTA’s Comeback Player of the Year

Belinda Bencic celebrates after beating Petra Kvitova to win last year's Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Reuters
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When Belinda Bencic looks back at her giant-slaying run to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships title last year, her mind immediately goes to her third-round tussle with Aryna Sabalenka.

Bencic was ranked 45 at the time and was still on the comeback trail following a slew of injuries that derailed her career. The talented Swiss had reached No 7 in the world back in 2016, when she was just 18 years old. But a lower back injury, a left wrist problem that required surgery, and a pre-stress fracture in her foot, halted her progress.

When she came to Dubai 12 months ago, Bencic hadn’t won a tour-level title since her stunning victory in Toronto in 2015, when she upset four top-10 players – including Serena Williams and Simona Halep – en route to the trophy.

It felt like déjà vu when Bencic reigned supreme at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium last year, toppling four top-10 players back-to-back to clinch her first tour-level crown in nearly four years.

That success provided the launch pad Bencic needed to get back to where she belongs, and she ended 2019 ranked No 7, and was voted the WTA’s Comeback Player of the Year.

It’s often the tiniest of margins that can make the biggest differences, and for Bencic, her last-16 clash with the then ninth-ranked Aryna Sabalenka in the Emirates is a reminder of that.

Bencic saved six match points against the Belarusian in a late-night showdown to grab a spot in the quarter-finals. She was down a break twice in the final set and trailed 1-4 in the deciding tiebreak, but still managed to escape. You wonder how her season would have gone had she lost any of those match points.

Her battling days were not over though. Against Halep in the quarters, Bencic came back from a set down. In the semis, two-time defending champion Elina Svitolina served for the match but Bencic somehow survived.

In the final, she won a fourth consecutive three-setter to overcome Petra Kvitova, who had blitzed Bencic just a few weeks earlier at the Australian Open.

"I just remember in every match I was down, I was not leading the match for sure and somehow I always managed to turn it around and come back," Bencic told The National ahead of her title defence in Dubai next week.

“It was really nice, I had nothing to lose, I played great, I felt great, because I played three-set matches. Overall it was a very emotional week for me.”

Her fellow Swiss Roger Federer lifted the men’s Dubai trophy a week later, and he was around when Bencic was bulldozing the field.

“I thought the way she did it was tremendous,” Federer said of Bencic’s run. “I’m happy that everything is coming together with her father and her fitness coach right now.”

Bencic stopped working with her father Ivan as her coach for two years but they reunited end of 2018 and the decision is obviously paying off. The 22-year-old has a tight-knit team and mostly just travels with her dad and her fitness trainer Martin Hromkovic.

She hit an important milestone last Autumn when she reached a Grand Slam semi-final for the first time at the US Open, upsetting world No 1 and defending champion Naomi Osaka en route.

“I was really close with Bianca [Andreescu] in that [semi-final] match. You’re in the semi-final you kind of feel like anything can happen for you and I definitely want to have the belief that I can play a couple of times Grand Slams like this and then eventually give my luck a chance by always being there,” she says.

Bencic finished 2019 in the most clutch way possible. In her last tournament of the regular season in Moscow, she had to reach the final to secure a highly-coveted spot in the eight-player field of the WTA Finals in Shenzhen. She went one better and won the title in the Russian capital, and followed that up by making the semis at the season-closer in Shenzhen.

She ended the year with the most three-set wins on tour, the most top-five wins, and the second-most top-10 victories.

“I’m always motivated for every match but it’s no secret I play the best against the best and on big stages so I definitely love that feeling,” says Bencic. “Last year, I learned about myself that really everything is possible.

“That hard work, it always takes a while to kind of set in. I definitely learned that I still have a lot of things to improve but that I can truly believe in myself that if I play well, I’m one of the best.”

She already is. Bencic comes to Dubai ranked a career-high No 5. Her main goal for 2020 is to stay healthy, and to maintain her place among the world’s top 10. She also has her eyes on the Olympics.

“It’s a really big goal. Obviously, I was really sad in 2016 I couldn’t play and this year it’s actually one of my highlights of the year, to play Olympics in Tokyo. I’m really excited and curious how it’s going to be because I have no idea what to expect and just overall just really excited,” Bencic said.

The question on everyone’s mind is whether Bencic will play mixed doubles in Tokyo with Federer. Bencic gives a coy, “we’ll see”, when asked if a reunion with Federer will happen at the Olympics.

The pair won back-to-back Hopman Cup titles together in 2018 and 2019, and Bencic jokes when she’s asked if it felt weird not starting 2020 alongside Federer, now that the mixed team event has been canceled.

“I feel like I can’t start with a title because Roger is not by side, he can’t win anything for me, I have to do it myself and it’s not going well,” she laughs.  “No, I definitely miss Hopman Cup a lot but I have to say I watched the ATP Cup also on TV and it was really entertaining and exciting.

“Hopefully, maybe in the future there can be a competition also for women, or women and men, it would be really exciting, even for the crowd, because it’s just something different if mixed doubles is also happening.”

Having developed from being a child prodigy, to experiencing the highs and lows of the pro tour, and now cementing her place among the game’s elite, Bencic’s definition of success has also evolved.

“I think success is if I can give the best of myself in this season, or after every match, to look in the mirror and say, ‘I did everything I could’, I think that’s very successful. Obviously, you want the results to come in too, so hopefully that happens,” she says.