It has been a very good February for Swiss tennis. First, Stan Wawrinka, having dealt with injury problems and the interruption of his career, returned to the top 42 with a run to the final in Rotterdam. Now, Belinda Bencic, having dealt with injury problems and the interruption of her career, is into the top 35 and could climb even higher.
Bencic assured herself of a top-35 ranking this coming Monday by reaching the semifinals in Dubai. She fought past Simona Halep in three sets to make the biggest statement yet that her game is approaching a fully restored state.
Any player can claim that a big win against a quality opponent means something. This is often true, but it is just as often less than fully true. Note the specific use of words there: “Less than fully true” is not the same as “completely false” or “totally meaningless.” There is a difference.
Single-match wins can contain value beyond the immediate addition of points or prize money. Single-match wins can and do propel players to greater heights all the time. The fruit of the victory might not emerge in the next match or even the next week. Speaking of Swiss tennis players, Roger Federer’s win over Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001 needed two full years to acquire substantial impact.
Single-match wins can matter a lot, but what do we always say in tennis? You need to back it up. Win one big match? Win another one the next time you take the court. That’s when a player can more reliably see that she is gaining — or in Bencic’s case, regaining — traction on tour.
Bencic defeated Aryna Sabalenka on Wednesday in Dubai, edging out a final-set tiebreaker by the minimum two points after saving six match points along the way. That was a great win, to be sure. Yet, the fuller test of Bencic in her attempt to reestablish herself on tour has been to stack together consecutive quality wins. She did this at Wimbledon last year when she narrowly averted defeat against Alison Riske in the second round and then beat seeded foe Carla Suarez-Navarro in the third round. She lost to Angelique Kerber in the fourth round, but she had shown that she could win a taxing match and respond with a good performance in the following round at an important tournament.
Here in Dubai, then, a Premier 5 gave Bencic a chance to see how she would respond to the Sabalenka win. Would she be able to take advantage of the fact that Simona Halep had played a ton of tennis over the past week and a half, having reached the Doha final on Saturday before losing to Elise Mertens in a very attritional match? Bencic would have loved to have won in straight sets, but the odds did favor her if she could get this to a third set.
She did… and she won.
Sabalenka on Wednesday. Halep on Thursday. Two strong players, two very different playing styles.
Two wins. A Premier 5 semifinal.
This is what it means to back it up, to stack wins on top of each other.
Plenty of players on both tours are going to Indian Wells next month without any assurance that they are heading in the right direction.
The same cannot be said for Belinda Bencic, whose career is bending — and mending — in the right direction.
Mend it like Bencic. Swiss tennis is having some fun this February.