Belinda Bencic will spend Christmas on a plane from the UAE to Australia but the Swiss youngster is not complaining, especially after she wrapped up her 2017 season with a title victory at the $100k Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge in Dubai on Saturday.
Bencic finished the year by claiming a 15th consecutive match win and a third title in a row by defeating Croatian Ajla Tomljanovic, who retired with a groin injury while down 4-6 in their final on Saturday afternoon.
“Definitely not the way I wanted to win. I’m very sad for Ajla but hopefully it’s really nothing too bad and just precautionary,” said the 20-year-old Bencic, who came back from wrist surgery in September and has won four trophies since.
“I won the tournament so I’m very happy about it, and obviously to finish the year with a win is great, that’s the first time I think I’ve done it so it feels good. I’m playing really good now so I’m happy about it.”
In the Dubai final, Bencic was the first to save break points in the match but inched ahead 4-3 by breaking the Tomljanovic serve. The Croatian then took an off-court medical timeout to treat a groin problem and broke back for 4-all upon her return. But Tomljanovic, clearly hampered in her movement, was broken at love the following game and she was forced to retire after dropping the opening set.
The 24-year-old apologised to the fans, who filled up the stand at the Habtoor Grand resort, for not being able to complete the final.
“First I just want to apologise for not finishing the match, trust me I probably feel worse than all of you,” Tomljanovic said.
The former top-50 player spent 13 months sidelined with a shoulder injury before returning to action end of last February. She was unranked when she started her season but will now rise to 118 when the new rankings come out on Monday.
“It wasn’t meant to be today,” said Tomljanovic. “It’s hard to look at positives now because all I want to do is play, you train to play the finals and today I couldn’t do it. The worst thing is I felt like I was playing really well and if I was healthy I could have had a good chance for a title and it sucks but if I wake up tomorrow feeling better than today it’s going to be a positive.”
Bencic, who was recovering from surgery between April and September, says the tournament was part of her preseason preparations and is glad that it paid off.
“It was a good preparation I think. I practiced more during the tournament and I feel better every match, physically as well, just the confidence, just my shots, and for sure I want to have now some days off then continue my preparation and then fly to Australia,” said Bencic, who will move up 24 spots and land at 74 when the new rankings come out.
The former world No. 7 begins her season by teaming up with Roger Federer representing Switzerland at the Hopman Cup in Perth (December 30 – January 6).
Bencic will spend the next 10 days training in Dubai, where several WTA players are also practicing including her good friend Kristina Mladenovic, Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova and Greece’s Maria Sakkari.
“I’m actually going to be on the plane on Christmas. I’m staying here (in Dubai). I don’t think it’s very smart to go there and back,” said Bencic.
“It’s not my first time where I spend Christmas (in the heat) I spent a lot of time in Florida as well, so I’m used to it.”
Will she be hitting the practice courts with Mladenovic?
“Yes of course, we texted already and we’re going to see each other and hang out. We haven’t seen each other for so long but we’re in contact all the time. Also with the other players, it’s good to practice,” added Bencic.
With four titles captured within the last three months, surely Bencic will treat herself to something special to celebrate.
“I actually treated myself already, I went to the mall with my mum and I bought her some presents and everything, she’ll know on Christmas. I don’t really need much, I’ll just have a day off at the pool, not too much and that’s going to be a treat I think,” she said with a smile.
Former top-50 player Ajla Tomljanovic admits that patience has never been her strongest suit but says she is approaching her comeback from a lengthy injury break with newfound perspective.
The 24-year-old Croatian, who reached the semi-finals of the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge with a 7-5, 7-5 win over Poland’s Magdalena Frech in Dubai on Thursday, spent 13 months sidelined from the sport dealing with a shoulder injury before returning to action in Acapulco end of last February.
Tomljanovic was unranked when she came back to competition but has managed to climb up to her current ranking of 130 thanks to a third round appearance in Miami, a second round showing at the US Open and some positive results on the ITF circuit that included two final runs at $60k and $80k tournaments in the United States.
This week, she’s competing at the $100k ITF Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge in Dubai, where she faces Switzerland’s Stefanie Voegele in the semi-finals on Friday.
A title win on Saturday would take her to the brink of the top-100.
Nearly 10 months into her comeback from injury, does Tomljanovic feel she’s getting her groove back?
“I actually feel like I haven’t really had a season yet. I feel like 2018 will sort of be the start of something fresh and when I’ll feel my best. This year was kind of just getting back into it and it was a little bit more relaxed with my schedule but I think I’m hitting my top form now, which is positive,” Tomljanovic told Sport360 on Thursday.
The Florida-resident made waves on tour when she reached the fourth round of the French Open in 2014, taking out former champion Francesca Schiavone, the then world No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska and Elena Vesnina en route.
She peaked at No. 47 in the rankings in 2015 before struggling with shoulder problems.
Most professional players often find it hard to stay patient when it comes to regaining full health and getting back to top form. Does Tomljanovic belong to that group?
“It’s the worst, especially when you’re naturally impatient as a person, so that’s even harder,” she admits.
Does she find herself more patient now having gone through that tough period?
“No,” she says with a smile. “I probably am. I’m probably more realistic, I have a bigger perspective but I’m still far off with the patience.”
Tomljanovic, who trains at Chris Evert’s academy in Boca Raton, is making sure she keeps her expectations in check, but does have a goal in mind.
“I started in March this year so I would be happy if I’m top-100 within a year of that. But my goals are very flexible so I’m just keeping it at staying healthy,” she added.
Meanwhile, No. 5 seed Belinda Bencic also advanced to the semi-finals in Dubai with a 7-6 (4), 6-2 win over Romanian No. 2 seed Mihaela Buzarnescu.
Bencic, a former world No. 7 who is also on the comeback trail from a long injury hiatus, takes on Italian Sara Errani in the last-four on Friday.
Errani, who served a two-month doping ban over the summer, is a former world No. 5 but is down to 143 in the rankings.
Lleyton Hewitt is coming out of retirement to play doubles at next month’s Australian Open.
The former world number one officially called it quits after his home grand slam in 2016 but returned to the court twice more last year in Davis Cup and at Wimbledon.
Now he is making another appearance, this time alongside fellow Australian Sam Groth, for whom this will be the last tournament of his career.
Hewitt said in the Herald Sun: “It’s going to be a bit of fun – that’s what the Australian Open is about. I’m going to really enjoy it. We’ve been hitting a lot of balls, hitting every day, and we’re not just going out there making up the numbers. We want to give it a fair crack.”
Hewitt won grand slam singles titles at the US Open in 2001 and Wimbledon the following year, while he was also victorious in doubles at Flushing Meadows in 2000 partnering Max Mirnyi.
The 36-year-old is currently Australia’s Davis Cup captain.