Sat by the pool at the Aviation Club in Dubai dressed in a bikini, a shiny halter top and white shorts, WTA world No14 Belinda Bencic looks around, grateful at the life she’s living.
Looking more like a tourist on holiday than a professional athlete in town for a tournament, no-one would have guessed that the talented 18-year-old Swiss had just spent four hours practicing on court as she prepares for the new tennis season on the sidelines of the IPTL.
Part of the Singapore Slammers squad in the inter-city league, Bencic had a day off from matches and made use of it by putting in the hard yards on the practice court before she hung out with her team-mates, doubles world No1 Marcelo Melo and WTA No11 Karolina Pliskova, for some R&R by the pool.
“What do you think, it’s a pretty good life right? I realise it every day but today even more, you wake up you’re in Dubai, in a big suite, you have a great practice, matches in the afternoon… so I’m really happy right now,” a relaxed Bencic tells Sport360.
It is a life she has deservedly earned thanks to years of hard work capped with a stellar 2015 season in which she rose to a career high No12 in the world, captured two titles in Eastbourne and Toronto, made two more finals in 's-Hertogenbosch and Tokyo, and notched up a victory over the one and only Serena Williams.
Bencic is the youngest player in the world’s top 70 and has just completed her second full season on the WTA circuit.
The former junior No1 started 2014 ranked just inside the top 200 but by September that year, she had made her first grand slam quarter- final at the US Open, toppling two top-10 players en route. This year, she added eight top-10 scalps to her tally of conquests and finished the season ranked 14 in the world.
Looking back at 2015, Bencic does not hesitate when asked what moment she was most proud of.
“I think the proudest moment is that I managed to beat Serena, that’s still something that is like ‘really?’ I think it will always be a moment I’ll never forget for sure because I worked so hard for it,” she beams. “I personally didn’t think I could do it, I didn’t believe it, I didn’t think it could be possible.”
Sporting a game that relies more on thought than power, Bencic has been likened to fellow Swiss Martina Hingis from the start, which comes as no surprise considering the teenager was coached by Hingis’ mother Melanie Molitor for many years and considers the five-time Grand Slam champion – now doubles world No2 – a mentor as well.
Bencic, currently coached by her father Ivan, who was sat close by listening as we conducted the interview, has quickly become an established name in the big leagues. As a result, do other players treat her differently after all her recent success?
“Maybe they do but I don’t because I don’t see myself differently, I’m still the normal girl who plays tennis,” she insists. “I’m just taking it easy.”
She feels keeping her expectations low heading into next season will be key for her tomaintain progress, despite everyone predicting great things from her already.
“Results-wise I didn’t expect anything because I didn’t make a plan. For example next week, if something happens I don’t know if I’m surprised or not because I’m not thinking about it,” she explains.
“It’s the most important thing I have to do I think because now the people of course will put high expectations but you still have to play on the court. So I try to ignore that and to prove on the practice court and the match court.”
Bencic will attract more attention next year when she partners with Hingis in the doubles at the Rio 2016 Olympics. There is speculation that she might also play mixed doubles with Stan Wawrinka but she says nothing has been decided on that front yet.
“A lot of people are asking me this but I cannot decide this. I’m ready to play singles and I’m playing doubles with Martina and for mixed, I hope, I will be ready but it’s not decided yet,” she says. “I don’t know when I’ll find out. It’s in the hands of Stan or from the people who organise this. I haven’t talked to anyone about it.”
Bencic is playing in the IPTL for the first time and is clearly enjoying the team competition, which started in Kobe, Japan, two weeks ago before it moved to Manila, New Delhi and then Dubai before the final stop in Singapore. And besides getting some matches in, a decent pay cheque, and some new friendships with teammates, Bencic also gets the chance to practice with the other ladies travelling the league.
“I’m always in a good mood, happy to be around the players, to practice with my good friends Kiki (Kristina Mladenovic) and Karolina (Pliskova). To play the matches is amazing,” adds Bencic. “I feel really motivated and also as a preseason I feel like it’s very good, for sure better than being home alone and having a tough time. So here it’s good you’re playing but you also can practice a lot.”
Her friendship with Frenchwoman Mladenovic has caught the eye of many fans, who are not used to seeing players become so close in what is often perceived as a cut-throat, competitive environment. Bencic realises that the public is surprised by their friendship but says she finds it “normal” to have a good friend on tour.
The pair went on holiday together to the Maldives last month and when they found out Alexander (Sascha) Zverev was also there, they met up with the German rising star for a few days on the beach. Bencic and Zverev have been friends since they were six-years-old and the banter between them saw the young Swiss lose a bet and end up going to dinner in a dress and diving flippers.
“That was so bad for him to post (on social media),” she says laughing. “It was actually my idea to make this bet because I was winning (in a card game) but then suddenly I lost and I had to go to the restaurant like this and eat. The people in the restaurant were like ‘what…?’”
It is striking how Bencic can be so youthful yet remain so composed on the tennis court in the most stressful situations. The sport has aged in recent years with the older players making more headlines than the younger ones and Bencic’s rise is not a common theme.
Asked why she thinks she was able to breakthrough as a teenager, she says: “It was my dream. I’m living my dream, I think this is a pretty good life. I’m so happy with what I’m doing, I wouldn’t change it.
“Of course there are some choices and sacrifices you make, for example the girls at home they go to party more or the cinema or on holidays more, but I go to practice.
“But I wouldn’t want to change anything because it’s my choice. For me this is what makes me happy, to be at tournaments, nice places, so it’s not a difficult thing to do.”