When Belinda Bencic called her father and coach Ivan for an on-court coaching session during her tough three-set win over Simona Halep in the Dubai quarter-finals on Thursday, he gave her some solid advice.
“He told me one good thing. It was: ‘Do you realise who do you even play, where you play? Be a little bit grateful for that’,” revealed the 21-year-old Bencic.
His words did the trick. Bencic rallied from a set down to defeat the second-ranked Halep 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 and reach her biggest semi-final in three years.
Exactly three years ago, Bencic was coming off of a final appearance at the Premier event in St. Petersburg and was ranked a career-high No. 7 at the tender age of 18.
When she made her top-10 debut in February 2016, Bencic was the youngest to do so since 2009 and she was tipped by many to become the next big star of the WTA. Injuries derailed her career though, and a left wrist surgery kept her out of the tour for five months in 2017.
Ranked No. 45 this week, Bencic posted the eighth top-five victory of her career when she dispatched a fatigued Halep, who was contesting her ninth match in 13 days.
When Bencic returned from her injury, she started off by playing lower-tier tournaments on the ITF circuit, instead of using her protected ranking to enter WTA events right away. She worked her way up, building confidence along the way, and says she never lost faith in her abilities.
She saved six match points on Wednesday night against world No. 9 Aryna Sabalenka before pulling off the upset over Halep less than 24 hours later.
“It feels great. I’m just really happy. I’m back. I knew it was still in me, even after the injuries. You cannot just come back like this and play [snapping fingers]. Otherwise, it wouldn’t show how good tennis is,” Bencic told reporters in Dubai on Thursday.
“Players are playing two, three years constantly on the level, they’re playing semi-finals, finals. You cannot just expect to be back after the injury and play like this.
“I had to work my way back. I knew it was in me, but I’m happy that I could finally show it.”
Simona Halep played 9 matches in 13 days. She ran out of gas today against a brilliant Belinda Bencic.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) February 21, 2019
Earlier this month, Halep won two Fed Cup matches to help Romania reach the semi-finals with victory over the Czechs in Ostrava then flew straight to Doha and reached the final there before coming to Dubai. She admits she ran out of gas against Bencic, and could feel some pain in her Achilles’.
“The body felt that it’s tired. Even if I was not giving up, I felt like I don’t have enough to win,” confessed Halep after he quarter-final defeat to Bencic. “But I played till the end. I tried just to stay there no matter the result.”
Bencic next takes on two-time defending champion Elina Svitolina, who extended her undefeated run in Dubai to 12 straight matches with a 6-2, 6-3 success over Carla Suarez Navarro.
The other semi-final on Friday will see No. 2 seed Petra Kvitova take on the magical Hsieh Su-Wei, who came back from 1-5 down in the final set to upset No. 4 seed Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 1-6, 7-5.
When Simona Halep was 14 years old, she decided she wanted to become one of the best tennis players in the world.
Nearly 12 years later, she ascended to the top spot of the rankings for the first time, becoming the first woman from Romania to occupy that position.
Along the way, Halep had to learn how to handle the enormous level of attention she was getting back home, as she single-handedly revived the sport in Romania, decades after the likes of her compatriots Ilie Nastase and Virginia Ruzici enjoyed their tennis success.
Every word she says and each move she makes is front page news at home, and it took her a while before she got accustomed to the media frenzy that followed her everywhere.
“2014 was the worst, then one more year, then that was it. Now I’m feeling good,” Halep told reporters in Dubai on Wednesday, following her 6-3, 7-5 win over Lesia Tsurenko in the third round.
Halep has never dropped out of the top-10 since she entered that ranking bracket in January 2014. She has spent the last 265 consecutive weeks in the top-10, which is currently the longest active streak on tour.
Her strength and consistency is the envy of many players on the circuit, and Halep says she developed both thanks to the pressure she had to deal with from Romanians throughout the years. She is a rockstar back home and has finally learned to embrace it.
“Nobody has or had what I had in Romania. Trust me that I am strong, [because] I could resist that thing,” she says with a smile.
“But when I’m going to the tournaments, even if I’m No. 1, No. 5, I treat the same. You can lose any time. You can win any match. I’m going with that mentality. If I lose, let’s say, an easy match, even if at this level you don’t have easy matches, I don’t make a drama. I want to shake it off fast, then start the new day tomorrow.”
Halep, who made the Doha final last week and is contesting the quarters in Dubai on Thursday, was speaking a day after Naomi Osaka teared up in front of reporters in the Emirates, as she admitted the intense media and public reaction to her coaching split with Sascha Bajin has been difficult to navigate.
Osaka lost her first match as world No. 1 when she fell to Kristina Mladenovic in Dubai on Tuesday and said the off-court drama affected her on-court. It was also Osaka’s first match since winning a second consecutive Grand Slam title at the Australian Open last month, to go with her maiden success at the US Open last September.
“I think it’s different to each player. I cannot say what she feels. It’s normal. She didn’t play since Melbourne. She won that title, very big title. It’s normal to have a little bit of letdown maybe. But she will come back stronger. If she lost one match, doesn’t mean that she lost everything. She has to relax,” Halep said of the 21-year-old Osaka.
Halep, who spent a total number of 64 weeks at No. 1 before conceding the spot to Osaka in January, said it’s difficult to compare her rise to that of the young Japanese, whose ascension from being a top-10 debutante to being a reigning world No. 1 took just 20 weeks – the fastest ever in WTA history.
“I didn’t feel very weird when I went to No. 1 seed. I didn’t have this pressure. Also I had been there for four years before at No. 2, No. 3. She’s different because she came last year from around 70, if I remember well. Maybe it’s different. I was okay. I didn’t have pressure of being No. 1,” explained Halep.
Meanwhile, two-time defending champion Elina Svitolina recorded an 11th consecutive match-win in Dubai thanks to a smooth 6-1, 6-2 triumph over Garbine Muguruza on Wednesday. The Ukrainian No. 6 seed next faces Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarter-finals.
* Stats via WTA Insider
Ask Hsieh Su-Wei to describe her own game and she gives you a simple answer.
“Su-Wei style: anything can happen on court,” she says with a smile.
The 33-year-old from Taipei has her unique brand of tennis and can pull off inconceivable shots with her cunning slices and lobs. But she also has the ability to hit the ball hard, and even a power-hitter like Naomi Osaka told reporters after their three-set thriller at the Australian Open that she felt Hsieh struck the ball harder than most of her opponents that tournament.
“Against Naomi, you know she’s very strong, so I was thinking, ‘Okay, when I go on the court, I’m going to smash her as hard as I can’, and I did, but finally I lost the match, but it’s okay, at least I know that my plan is working,” Hsieh tells Sport360 with a laugh.
Hsieh started the year making the semis in Auckland, before reaching the Australian Open third round and now the quarters in Dubai, after taking out 10th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova, Aliaksandra Sasnovich and fifth-seeded Angelique Kerber.
She is on the brink of matching her career-high ranking of 23, which she hit back in 2013, and won her first WTA title in six years last September in Hiroshima. Expected to rise to at least 28 in the rankings next week, Hsieh isn’t surprised she is enjoying some of her best tennis at age 33.
“I try to keep my mid like I’m 18 years old. So I don’t worry about my age, I just want to keep healthy and keep enjoying tennis, even when I lose, it’s okay, just keep positive and keep training hard,” she says, before giving two thumbs up to the camera.
Hsieh’s interviews are just as entertaining as her tennis and if you want to see her light up, just get her to talk about food.
When asked what she’s most proud of so far this week in the Emirates, she said: “I ate ilak fish. You know it? It’s a huge fish. I found it two years ago, I found this dish in a shop. And then this year I said, ‘Okay, today is a day off, I want to go find this fish again’. And I went and it was amazing, I really enjoyed it. I try to discover more food here. I really love it. I hope I keep doing better so I can stay longer and enjoy more food.”
That’s certainly one effective way to stay motivated on the court.
Hsieh has been spending more time in France where she lives with her French boyfriend. Of course the big highlight for her there is the decadent French cuisine.
— Simona Halep (@Simona_Halep) February 19, 2019
Elsewhere in the press centre, former world No. 1 Simona Halep discussed what it’s like having so many fans chanting her name from the stands and supporting her wherever she goes.
“I hear everything, every word,” said Halep when asked if she blocks the cheers from the crowd to stay focused. Someone said is going to lose the plane tonight and I have to finish faster. I don’t know if it’s positive for me during the match, but I took it. I lost the game, but then I won the match,” she said with a laugh. “Yeah, I hear everything.”