History may have repeated itself in Dubai on Saturday but Belinda Bencic is not interested in looking back, with her stunning title run in the Emirates compelling her to feel great about her future.
First on the agenda for the 21-year-old Swiss following her 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 victory over Petra Kvitova in the Dubai final is to go skydiving. It was a pact she made with her fitness trainer Martin Hromkovic that they would jump from a plane after she’d won her first tour-level title since Toronto 2015.
“It’s the first thing we will do in the morning. I’m providing a lot of heart attacks on the court. Now I’m going to provide heart attacks off the court. I mean it very seriously, yeah,” said Bencic with a laugh, looking at Hromkovic and her father and coach Ivan, who were standing at the back of the press conference room.
That run in Canada three and half years ago saw Bencic defeat for top-10 players – including Serena Williams and Simona Halep – to lift the trophy and it put her on everyone’s radar as a teenaged force to be reckoned with on tour.
In Dubai this week, Bencic defeated a quartet of top-10 players, in a row, en route to her title triumph.
Saturday’s final provided a full circle moment for Bencic, who exactly three years ago (on February 22, 2016 to be precise) had risen to No. 7 in the world rankings when she was just 18.
A lower back injury, a left wrist problem that required surgery, and a pre-stress fracture in her foot, derailed her career, and she dropped to as low as 318 in the rankings in September 2017.
On Monday, she will rise to No. 23 in the world thanks to her exploits in Dubai. She saved six match points in a late-night third round against world No. 9 Aryna Sabalenka. She came back from a set down against third-ranked Simona Halep in the quarter-finals. She had two-time defending champion Elina Svitolina serve for the match against her in the semis but turned things around to snap the Ukrainian’s winning streak in Dubai.
Entering the final against Kvitova, Bencic knew she had never taken a set off of the Czech lefty in any of their three previous meetings. In their Australian Open third round last month, Bencic could only muster winning five games against Kvitova.
None of that mattered as Bencic bulldozed through the draw, high on confidence and self-belief.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s incredible. I mean, I still cannot believe it,” she said, glancing at her shiny silver trophy. “So many times I was close from defeat. It’s unbelievable that I ended up winning this.”
Coached by her father Ivan and Martina Hingis’ mother Melanie Molitor in her early career, Bencic parted ways with her father for two years and they only reunited last October. She reached the Luxembourg final in their first tournament back working together and it seems their partnership, along with the fitness work she’s doing with Hromkovic is paying dividends now.
“I expected her to play well but I didn’t know how well, so this was a surprise that she won the tournament. We expected her to make maybe a big win and then we will see, step by step, but that she beat four top-10 players in row is something we didn’t expect,” Ivan told Sport360 after the final.
“I’m happy that she believes now in this, what we have done, like she was a child, like she was a junior, and now she’s coming back in her tennis, with the fitness, the hard work she has done with Martin. So all this together now is the fruit of all of that.”
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Bencic is most pleased with her mental strength throughout the week. She has taken her tally of career top-10 wins to an impressive 17, against just 15 losses against such opposition.
“Of course they are very high-quality players, all of them. I’m so happy about the consistency that I could back up my wins. After playing a tough match, I could mentally win another one. It’s very difficult. Yeah, just very proud of that,” she said.
Bencic admits she feels like she’s the fittest she’s ever been and credits the work she’s put in with Hromkovic over the past year for that.
Ivan believes it was necessary for his daughter to do things her own way for that period when they weren’t working together but is happy she now believes in their reunion.
“I was always with my wife, we are parents. Two years earlier she wanted to make her own decisions and we supported her in that because she has to learn also with experiences, with agents, with other coaches, and now she has these experiences and we’re happy that she decided to come back to her tennis, to the system she had before,” he explained.
For Kvitova, her runner-up trophy felt like the winners’ trophy to her because she came to Dubai so mentally drained and physically struggling, yet managed to fight through three three-setters on her way to the final, and stretched Bencic to a decider before succumbing.
The Czech star, who has made three finals from four tournaments contested so far this year, is looking forward to some much-needed rest before heading to Indian Wells.
“I wasn’t in a great mood, to be honest, at that time,” Kvitova said, referring to the day she did her pre-tournament press in Dubai.
“I was very exhausted, tired, empty. I’m not sure. I do have like this trophy, it’s been weird. I didn’t really expect that. So for me it’s like the first place anyway.
“Tennis was kind of an escape from the other things which happening in my life. It’s been a bit difficult, to be honest, to handle everything. But I’m glad that I can still play tennis. This is big joy.”