You don’t expect a player to be competing in a tournament in December, midway through preseason training, but for Belinda Bencic, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
The 20-year-old Swiss underwent left wrist surgery last spring, missing five months of action before returning in September. The ex-world No. 7 dropped to 312 in the world rankings as a result.
Bencic won her first tournament back from surgery – a $100k ITF in St. Petersburg – and added two more trophies in Thailand and Taipei to vault back into the top-100 and secure a spot in next month’s Australian Open main draw.
Playing in Dubai at the $100k Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge this week, Bencic claimed an 11th consecutive match win by defeating Vitalia Diatchenko 6-4, 6-4 in the first round on Tuesday. It was her third encounter with the Russian in the last two months.
“It was a very difficult match. We’ve played each other in the last couple of tournaments a lot of times so we know each other well and she’s very difficult to play so I was happy to could go through,” Bencic told Sport360.
“Obviously I’m just enjoying to play again and I haven’t expected to play that many matches but I’m super happy to get the confidence back and the matches back, the rhythm back, so I hope I can continue here like that and we’ll see.”
Bencic, a former junior world No. 1, made waves on the WTA tour when she was just 18-years-old. She won two Premier-level titles in 2015 – Eastbourne and Toronto – and later became the first teenager in seven years to crack the top-10.
An injury-ravaged 2016 halted her progress, before wrist problems sidelined her this year.
The Swiss youngster, often compared to her five-time Grand Slam-winning compatriot Martina Hingis, says she’s back to full health now, and is ready to fight her way back up the rankings.
She’s up to 98 in the world thanks to her strong results over the past eight weeks.
Bencic has played 27 matches in the last two months. Playing so many back-to-back matches is different to hitting the practice court every day. Has her body been holding up nicely?
“It’s true but I actually think practicing every day is harder than matches. No, but I had some rest obviously after the two (title) wins in Asia and I came here refreshed and I’m doing this tournament as part of my preparations (for 2018) so I’m actually practicing more than I usually do during a tournament so I’m using it as a practice then I’ll be ready for Australia,” she explained.
Bencic’s rapid rise meant that she had experienced some incredible highs at the top level of the sport from a very young age. She made the quarter-finals of the US Open at 17, won a Premier 5 title at 18 and claimed more than 10 victories against top-10 opponents.
She’s now gone back to the ITF circuit to boost her ranking, playing lower tier tournaments.
“Actually I enjoy it. When I came up the first time I had to go to all these tournaments so it’s actually nice to be back and fight my way back and play a lot of matches and not start big and then losing and winning a round and I just wanted to come into the rhythm and I think that worked pretty well,” said Bencic.
Tennis courts all around Dubai are currently packed with players preparing for the 2018 season. Roger Federer, Agnieszka Radwanska, Dominika Cibulkova, Ons Jabeur, Maria Sakkari and many more have been spotted in the Emirates practicing over the past few weeks.
Bencic, and other players competing at Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge this week, are taking part in a tournament while also going through their preseason preparations.
“It’s the first time I’m doing it actually. I would be here doing the preparation anyway and I have a tournament in front of my nose so why wouldn’t I play it? I think it’s good because we can figure out how that works for the first time so we’ll see and until now it’s good and I’m enjoying it,” she said.
Bencic made a significant coaching change this season, bringing in Elina Svitolina’s former coach, Iain Hughes, to replace her father, Ivan, who had been traveling with her throughout her career.
Asked about her new set-up, Bencic said: “It’s not that new anymore, it’s since July. But until now it’s been working great. I’m very happy we’re working great together I think, it’s definitely showing. I mean my father was here too, he’s still supporting me and watching every match but he’s more traveling with my brother now.”
Having already picked up three titles since September to make a quick return to the top-100, is Bencic approaching 2018 with high expectations?
“I’m still taking it step by step, it was a bonus that I actually qualified for the Australian Open. I was expecting to play the qualies so I’m actually taking it much easier now,” she replied.
Bencic faces Tereza Martincova in the Habtoor Tennis Challenge second round in Dubai on Wednesday.
As Agnieszka Radwanska’s coach Tomasz Wiktorowski put it, starting the year ranked 28 in the world will be an “unusual” situation for the Polish perennial top-tenner.
Injuries and illness have hampered Radwanska in 2017, with foot problems bothering her since May and a virus disrupting her Asian swing.
The result was a forgettable season which saw her compile a 25-18 win-loss record, and drop from No. 3 in the world to just inside the top-30.
It’s the first time since 2010 Radwanska has ended the year outside the top-eight.
“Definitely a very difficult year. I’ve been struggling with a couple of injuries, a couple of viruses as well on the way. It was really hard being without preparation before every Grand Slam pretty much,” Radwanska told Sport360 during her preseason training stint in Dubai last week.
“I was just praying that this year would be over and I’m just going to start from the beginning next year. We’ll see how it goes but for sure I don’t think it can be worse than this year.”
After making at least one Grand Slam semi-final in each of five consecutive seasons from 2012 to 2016, Radwanska couldn’t make it past the fourth round at any of the majors this year.
She wasn’t able to qualify for the year-ending WTA Finals for the first time since 2010 and ended up getting a longer vacation than usual due to her earlier than usual end to the season.
That inspired her and her team to change up their preseason preparations and they decided, for the first time, to come to Dubai to train and get ready for 2018.
Radwanska, who got married to her hitting partner Dawid Celt last July, was joined by him, Wiktorowski, her fitness trainer and physio at the Aviation Club in Dubai, where they focused on her physical conditioning to help her bounce back to her top form.
They also worked on her strength and endurance at Um Suqeim beach – something she admits was a new addition to her training regimen.
“It is painful. It was painful and I’m still tight,” she said with a laugh, referring to those sessions on the beach.
“But I think it’s something different and it’s very nice to do something new. Obviously so many years on tour you’ve been practicing the same things over and over again, millions of the same hits and training, so running on the beach is something new. I still have a couple of more sessions on the beach so we’re going to see if I survive.”
She assured she’s feeling fit though, and is hopeful that her injury woes are behind her.
“Physically I’m good so far, being healthy and my foot is also much better than it was. I’ve been working on that for a really long time and I really hope it’s going to be much better next year,” added the 28-year-old.
Wiktorowski explained that the two-week training block they had in Dubai was all about her physical preparation. Their time in the Emirates coincided with Petra Kvitova’s preseason training in Dubai but the Radwanska and Kvitova didn’t practice together because the Pole had not reached that stage – hitting with another pro – in her 2018 prep.
“We’re not even looking into good hitting partners at the moment. We have two physical trainers with us. This is a pretty tough time for Aga, but then we plan I hope a pretty good recovery and in a week we start specific preparation for tennis,” said Wiktorowski.
“It is a very unusual schedule for us, first time since I remember she didn’t qualify for Singapore so she had pretty long holidays. So I hope she had a good recovery at the same time. So far everything went smooth and easy for us, but yes that was a tough year with a lot of injuries and a virus. But I hope we’ve already dealt with this. She’s healthy and we’re doing whatever we can to prepare her next year.”
Radwanska will kick off her 2018 season in Auckland and she knows she’s facing a unique challenge, trying to climb back up the rankings.
She insists her goals remain the same though as she continues to chase an elusive Grand Slam title and is not daunted by the task at hand.
The Krakow-native also refuses to blame her current lower ranking solely on her injuries, stating that the competition in the women’s game has gotten fiercer.
“It is something new for sure but well that’s how it is, especially with so many things going on this year,” Radwanska says of her ranking position.
“And also for sure I must say that there’s a lot of players that are playing at a really high level right now and a lot of young up-and-coming players also playing great tennis so it’s been really tough. Every year it’s getting harder and harder and you really have to work also harder to stay there. For sure it’s a number where I didn’t really start from before but well, we start from there.”
Asked if this is a “tricky situation” for Radwanska, Wiktorowski quickly responds: “It’s not tricky it’s additional motivation to get back to the top. I mean 28 is not bad, I’m not saying it’s a disaster, just an unusual start of the season for Aga but we’re looking to a brighter future.”
Radwanska is arguably the craftiest player on tour, which is why it’s no surprise she keeps winning the ‘Shot of the Month’ awards all year and is voted as a ‘fan favourite’ each season.
The Polish ‘ninja’, as her fans affectionately call her, does not have a power shot to rely on though. The upcoming generation of young talent on tour is predominantly all about power, with players like Jelena Ostapenko and Madison Keys being true masters of all-out attack with their cannonball shots. Does Radwanska feel she has to adjust her game to counter all these big-hitters?
“There’s so many girls playing at the top-10 level. As we can see, there are so many different names winning big events which is something we haven’t seen before that much,” said the former Wimbledon finalist.
“For sure next year is going to be a very interesting year, challenging for so many players as well. Every tournament is a different story and for sure women’s tennis has proven that.
“There’s a new generation playing very powerful tennis but there are still players playing similar to my tennis. There’s always going to be two different styles of tennis on the tour.
“I’m not going to really change my tennis because that’s how I play and that’s how I can play. But it also depends on the day and surface and tournament, how it goes, but you can see so many different scores every single week. Of course nobody’s perfect, you always need to improve everything, all your shots and all your tennis because everything is going forward. But I have to stick to my game and do everything I can to play better and better.”
Wiktorowski believes tennis is becoming more and more exciting with lots of fresh faces coming up. He acknowledges that younger players are hitting with higher mph but has confidence Radwanska can find ways to stop them.
Radwanska and her coach Wiktorowski.
“She’s one of a kind, it’s hard to give another example of this kind of player, playing this style. Maybe in the past it would be easier to find some players playing this kind of tennis,” he says of Radwanska.
“It’s not like we’re looking into the future from different perspectives than what we’ve been doing so far. We can’t change too much.
“We can maybe adjust some things. She has to be prepared to compete with those girls. I’m looking more into the physical preparation at the moment than technical stuff on court.
“Tennis has to stay almost the same. Of course we expect maybe some more big shots, different tactical solutions on court, but we can’t change her tennis. But what we can do, and where she has some reserve to use is for sure her physical preparation.”
One thing is for sure – the gap between the players was smaller this season, and there were seven different women who could have ended the year as the world No. 1 depending on their results at the season-closing WTA Finals in Singapore.
So who does Radwanska consider the ‘Player of the Year’ in her book?
“I think consistency is what matters and I would have to say Caro (Wozniacki) because she played all year very well, on every surface, so many finals. She was very consistent the whole year, so I would pick her, even without the last title she won (in Singapore), I think she was the best this year,” said Radwanska of her friend Wozniacki.
The British number one has been looking for a replacement for Wim Fissette since they parted company in October and has turned to the 44-year-old, who used to coach Maria Sharapova.
Joyce will be in Konta’s camp for the first tournament of the new season in Brisbane, starting on January 1.
“Michael is a fantastic coach with a great pedigree and I’m really excited to work with him,” she announced on Wednesday.
“2017 has been amazing but I feel like there is so much more to come. Our first tournament together will be the Brisbane International and the plan is for Michael to travel with me full-time through 2018.”
Konta ended her partnership with Fissette after a disappointing end to what had been an impressive 2017. She won her biggest singles title of her career in Miami and followed that up with a run to the Wimbledon semi-final, which sent her to number four in the world.
But that proved the high point of her campaign and a poor run of form in the autumn saw her part ways with Fissette in October.
Joyce worked with Sharapova for many years.
After a lengthy recruitment process she has now appointed Joyce, who worked with Sharapova for seven years between 2004 and 2011 and helped the Russian to two grand slam titles and the world number one ranking.