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.”
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