Belinda Bencic ended the 2018 season winning 16 or her last 19 matches at various levels of competition, and her strong play has persisted into the new year. A semifinalist at Hobart in January, Bencic has now posted her biggest result of her resurgence, reaching the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
On Friday night, Bencic edged two-time defending champion Elina Svitolina in a grueling three-setter, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (3), to reach the final of the first WTA Premier 5-level tournament of the year. In it, Bencic will face Petra Kvitova, who defeated the 21-year-old Swiss shotmaker in the third round of the Australian Open.
Svitolina came into today's match on a 12-match winning streak in Dubai; she was two wins from becoming the first woman ever to win here three years in a row. After falling behind a set and a break against Bencic, 6-2, 1-0, the Ukrainian began to rediscover her winning ways, taking the second set and building a 5-3 lead in the third.
But Bencic won the next two games at love to level the score at 5-all, and after missing out on three match points at 6-5, she clinched the victory with a lob winner on her fourth match point.
“I feel like I’ve been playing better when I’m down,” Bencic said. “I’m proud of how I fight. Even when I lose, I’ve learned to just look in the mirror and be proud of myself when I’m fighting, when I’m giving my all, when I’m just trying to do what I have to do. That will be my number one goal, always.”
This was Bencic’s third Top 10 win of the week, the previous two also coming in three sets: she saved six match points to beat No. 9 Aryna Sabalenka in the third round, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (7), and she battled back from a set down to take out No. 2 Simona Halep in the quarterfinals, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
With her win over No. 6 Svitolina, this is just the second time in Bencic's career that she’s beaten three or more Top 10 players at the same tournament. In 2015, she beat four Top 10 players, including Serena Williams, to win Toronto.
Awaiting Bencic in the final will be another Top 10 player, No. 4 Kvitova, who edged Hsieh Su-Wei in the first semifinal of the day, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4. Hsieh had taken out two other Top 10 players, Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova, as well as world No. 11 Anastasija Sevastova to reach the semis.
“It was a tough one today, for sure,” Kvitova said afterwards. “It was a tough first set. I’m pleased with my mental focus after losing the first set, that I was calmer from the beginning of the second set.
“I’m a bit tired right now. I have a final tomorrow, so I don’t know how I’m going to recover.”
Kvitova has beaten Bencic in straight sets in all three of their previous meetings, including a 6-1, 6-4 victory at the Australian Open on her way to the final.
“The score looked a little bit easy, but it wasn’t easy at all,” Kvitova said of the pair’s meeting in Melbourne. “I saw her playing some matches. She’s really on fire, playing really well. And I think this surface suits her game, as well, because it’s pretty fast, and she likes to play on fast surfaces.”
“There she was on a roll,” Bencic recalled. “I mean, [Amanda] Anisimova was playing amazing. Petra just crushed all of us. We were trying so hard, but it was 6-2, 6-1, and then 6-3, 6-1, until the final.
“She’s in great form. Maybe this tournament I’m also in great form. It will be a tough final.”
Kvitova is projected to move up to No. 3 in the rankings and will become No. 2 if she wins the title. Bencic, a former No. 7 currently at No. 45, will return to the Top 30 and could crack the Top 25 with the title.
ATP Rio De Janeiro
• Starting Monday 2/18, at 2:30 pm ET, catch live coverage of the Rio Open featuring Dominic Thiem, Fabio Fognini, and Diego Schwartzman.
• Watch Naomi Osaka, Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova live from the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships starting Saturday, 2/16 at 3:00 am ET
• Tennis Channel Plus features live coverage of the Hungarian Ladies Open beginning Monday, 2/18 8:00 am ET
ATP Delray Beach
• Watch Juan Martin del Potro, John Isner and Frances Tiafoe live on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Tuesday, 2/19 at 12:30 am ET.
• See Karen Khachanov, Borna Coric and Stefanos Tsitsipas live on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Monday 2/18, 8:30 am ET