DUBAI, February 24, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
Belinda Bencic’s remarkable run to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships title, in which the unseeded Swiss triumphed over Australian Open finalist Petra Kvitova, 6-3, 1-6, 6-2, for her third WTA title, resembled a similar path she took to winning the Rogers Cup in the summer of 2015.
Back then, as a healthy and promising 18-year-old phenom, Bencic beat four Top 10 titans in Toronto – Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, Serena Williams and Simona Halep. In doing so, Bencic made a name for herself and broke into the WTA Top 10 before her career was stymied by injuries to her lower back, a pre-stress fracture in her foot, and a left wrist problem that required surgery. Her ranking plummeted to No. 318 by September 2017.
Fast forward to this week in the Emirates where, en route to reaching Saturday’s final, a healthy and rejuvenated Bencic, now 21 and ranked 45th, knocked off three of the world’s current Top 10 players – No. 9 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 7 Elina Svitolina, and No. 3 Halep, again – to reach the final of the year’s first WTA Premier 5 tournament. Next, she would face her fourth Top 10 opponent in No. 2 Kvitova of the Czech Republic. Could she pull off another upset?
While neither quick or strong, Bencic’s ability to think while defending the baseline – and to keep the ball in play – is as good if not better than almost anyone on tour. For instance, against Sabalenka in the second round, Bencic saved six match points, then followed it up by gutting out a tough three-setter against the former No. 1 Halep, in which she rallied from a set down. Finally, she outplayed Svitolina in a third-set tiebreak that ended the two-time defending champion’s reign in Dubai.
Before Bencic faced Kvitova, whom she lost to at last month’s Australian Open while winning just five games, she was quoted by the WTA Insider as saying, “Hopefully, I will not be Petra’s victim.”
Going into the Dubai final, Bencic’s 0-3 career head-to-head against Kvitova made her a definite underdog. In fact, she never had won a set against the two-time Wimbledon champion. But as Saturday’s final result suggested, Bencic was far from being Kvitova’s victim this time.
None of their previous history mattered as Bencic started quickly and looked solid, especially hitting from the baseline. Exuding confidence and playing aggressively, she pushed ahead 4-1 with a double break of Kvitova’s serve. Then, Bencic broke her opponent for a third time to win the opening set 6-3. Down but far from out, Kvitova responded in the second set and went up 4-0. She coasted 6-1 on the strength of three consecutive return winners.
However, in another momentum swing, Bencic garnered an early break in the decisive set and another one later on – and, soon, found herself serving for the match at 5-3. She clinched the title win when Kvitova struck a forehand return long on the second championship point after one hour and 43 minutes.
After acknowledging the plaudits of the crowd, Bencic raced over to hug her father and coach, Ivan, and her fitness trainer Martin Hromkovic. During an on-court interview, she confessed that she had made a pact with Hromkovic that they would skydive from a plane if she won. Some day, perhaps.
For now, feeling sky high from her incredible string of victories in Dubai, Bencic will move up to No. 23 when the new WTA rankings are released on Monday.
During her sit-down with the media following the trophy ceremony, Bencic was euphoric about her victory. “It’s unbelievable. It’s incredible. I mean, I still cannot believe it,” she said. “So many times I was close from defeat. It’s unbelievable that I ended up winning this.”
With 17 victories in 21 matches and one title to her credit, Kvitova has been one of the most consistent players on the WTA Tour this season. However, Bencic appeared to be the one who was more mentally and physically tough. Although Kvitova hit 33 winners, she also committed 29 unforced errors. Bencic capitalized on her opponent’s seven double faults and the Czech’s inability to win points consistently on her second serve (Kvitova won just 44 percent of her second serves). Although Bencic struck just nine winners, she proved to be the steadier player when it counted most. She outpointed Kvitova 77-74.
Afterward, Kvitova reflected upon her loss by praising Bencic via Twitter.
Two matches. Two different results but still two players smiling. I’m proud of myself for finding a way this week and want to congratulate @BelindaBencic 👏
— Petra Kvitova (@Petra_Kvitova) 23. Februar 2019
Bencic complimented Kvitova during her presser. “I have huge respect from Petra because she’s amazing player,” she said “She’s such a champion. I really didn’t believe all the match that I can beat her. Really, that was my mentality. I was just trying to get from point to point, getting closer, getting closer. I was not thinking too far ahead.
“After when I won, it was incredible. Of course, even to win a set already, it would have been amazing. I just tried to get closer this time than I was in Australia. I hoped that it would be enough.”
It was enough, Belinda. It was better than enough.