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.”
— Jimmie48 Photography (@JJlovesTennis) February 23, 2019
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.”
Roger Federer bid for a 100th career title will start with a first-round clash against Philipp Kohlschreiber at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships this week.
The Swiss seven-time Dubai champion is back in the Emirates for the first time since 2017, and is looking to lift his first trophy here since 2015.
Here are the main talking points surrounding the men’s draw in Dubai.
TOUGH PATH TO 100
If Federer does indeed secure his 100th title in Dubai, he may have to navigate a tough path to do it. His road to the dhow boat trophy could look like this: R1 Kohlschreiber, R2 Fernando Verdasco, QF Milos Raonic, SF Karen Khachanov/Borna Coric, F Stefanos Tsitsipas/Kei Nishikori/Marin Cilic.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) February 22, 2019
YOUNG GUNS IN FULL FORCE
A quartet of the best 23-and-under players are in contention this week in the form of fourth-seeded Khachanov, fifth-seeded Tsitsipas, sixth-seeded Coric and eighth-seeded Daniil Medvedev. Expect them to cause some serious trouble for the veterans at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium.
A few players will be making their maiden appearances in Dubai, including Nishikori and Raonic, who have surprisingly never played here before. Cilic will be making his first showing since 2010.
ROUND ONES TO WATCH
Third-seeded Cilic has a tricky opener against Frenchman Gael Monfils, who won Rotterdam earlier this month while Federer has a tough challenge against Kohlschreiber, whom he practiced with here just two days ago. Wildcards Mohamed Safwat and Marcos Baghdatis will face off in what is expected to be a loud, well-attended affair, with both of them popular figures in Dubai, while Khachanov has a challenging start against Beijing champion Nikoloz Basilashvili. Top-seeded Nishikori got the talented but erratic Benoit Paire as his opener.
Cilic jokes: Let’s repeat the draw 😂
Faces Monfils in R1.#DDFTennis
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) February 23, 2019
UNSEEDED PLAYERS TO WATCH
World No. 23 Monfils will have many eyes on him in his first round against Cilic, while two-time Dubai finalist Tomas Berdych, who is up to 71 in the world following a long back injury lay-off. The Czech has been in fine form so far this season, amassing an 11-4 win-loss record, that includes a final showing in Doha, fourth round at the Australian Open, and semis in Montpellier. Defending champion Roberto Bautista Agut is also one to watch. The Spaniard reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final in Melbourne last month and started 2019 by lifting the trophy in Doha.
When Petra Kvitova is told that it’s still February yet she has already reached three finals in 2019, the Czech world No. 3 smiles and simply says: “That’s nice”.
“It’s a bit weird, to be honest,” she continued, addressing reporters after securing a spot in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships final with a hard-fought 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 win over Hsieh Su-Wei on Friday.
“I didn’t really expect anything like that. Well, to be honest, I didn’t expect anything, which I already achieved this year. For me, everything is just bonus. The tennis, it’s a bit like escape this week. This is unbelievable to be in the final when I’m escaping from something. Yeah, very interesting.”
What Kvitova means by ‘escaping’ is the fact that she arrived to Dubai so mentally and emotionally fatigued that she told WTA Insider that the first five weeks of the season – in which she won Sydney and made the Australian Open final back-to-back – were a “crushing time” for her and “I’m not feeling really fresh, to be honest”.
After winning 11 matches in a row, Kvitova fell to Naomi Osaka in the Melbourne final before flying home to pick up her passport with the Russian visa. She flew to St. Petersburg, where she lost in her second match, then went to Monaco, followed by the Czech Republic, where she had to testify in court against the man who attacked her with a knife in her apartment in December 2017.
The gruelling start to the year has understandably taken an emotional toll on Kvitova, but she has still managed to find her fighting spirit in Dubai, battling through three three-setters so far this week, en route to the final.
On Saturday, she takes on 21-year-old Swiss Belinda Bencic, who has also been at her fighting best this week in the Emirates.
It’s a rematch of their Australian Open third round encounter, which Kvitova won 6-1, 6-4.
“The score looked a little bit easy, but it wasn’t easy at all,” said Kvitova of her victory over Bencic in Melbourne.
“I saw her playing some matches. She’s really on fire, playing really well. I think the surface suits her game, as well. I think it’s pretty fast. That’s what she likes to play.”
Kvitova did not drop a set on her way to the Australian Open final last month, and she followed her success over Bencic with a 6-2, 6-1 rout of American teen Amanda Anisimova, who later posted a message on her Instagram saying she given “a lesson” on court that day from the Czech lefty.
Bencic commented on the photo saying, “Welcome to the club” along with the hash-tag “#petrasvictims”.
The young Swiss will be looking to avoid a similar fate in her rematch with Kvitova in Dubai on Saturday.
“There she was on the roll. I mean, Anisimova was playing amazing. Petra crushed all of us. We were trying so hard. It was 6-2, 6-1, then 6-3, 6-1, until the final,” Bencic said after her semi-final win over Elina Svitolina in Dubai on Friday.
“That’s why I said it. Yeah, of course she’s in great form. Maybe this tournament I’m also in great form. It will be a tough final. The final is always two great players. I’m very happy to play her. Yeah, we’ll see. Hopefully I will not be Petra’s victim.”
Bencic has taken out three top-eight seeds back-to-back this week: Aryna Sabalenka (No. 8), Simona Halep (No. 3) and Svitolina (No. 6).
The former world No. 7 ended Svitolina’s 12-match winning streak in Dubai with a 6-2, 3-6, 7-6(3) triumph, to reach her biggest final since Toronto 2015.
Bencic broke Svitolina when the Ukrainian two-time defending champion was serving for the match at 5-4 in the final set. And even though Svitolina saved three match points two games later, she succumbed to Bencic in the tiebreak, seeing her bid for an unprecedented Dubai three-peat come to an end.
“I think from 3-5 [in the final set], I just completely zoomed out. I think I was playing the same, even though I lost the match points. Somehow I was still focused, I don’t know why,” said the 45th-ranked Bencic.
“I had a big chance on the first match point. I went for too much. I think I did the right thing. I was doing the right thing. Basically I stayed in the zone, even in tiebreak.
“I was barely breathing, just playing automatic. You are not thinking any more. It’s where the instincts just guide you through it.”