DUBAI, UAE - Unseeded Belinda Bencic played inspired tennis to knock out former World No.1 Simona Halep and reach the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships’ semifinals in a three-set battle full of twists and turns.
The No.3-seeded Halep had a challenge on her hands from Bencic - who had saved six match points in her last match to upset No.8 seed Aryna Sabalenka, a pre-tournament favorite.
But Halep, who reached the final at the Qatar Total Open last week and was contesting her ninth match in 13 days, seemed to run out of steam against Bencic’s attacking, and the Swiss player came back from a set down to claim the victory 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
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The win is a big boost for Bencic, who is through to her first Premier-level semifinal since her 2016 run to the St. Petersburg final, and she’s now scored her first back-to-back Top 10 wins since 2015 in Tokyo. The 21-year-old has had to spend a lot of time away from the sport after years of battling injuries, including a back injury and undergoing wrist surgery.
“I'm just really happy. I'm back. I knew it was still in me, even after the injuries,” an elated Bencic told press afterwards. “You cannot just come back like this and play (snapping fingers). Otherwise, it wouldn't show how good tennis is.
“I had to work my way back. I knew it was in me, but I'm happy that I could finally show it.”
But not all is lost for Halep, despite falling in the quarterfinals. She’s protected her WTA World No.2 ranking through the end of the week and also boosts her chances of retaking the top spot.
Halep is one of several players seeking to overtake current WTA World No.1 Naomi Osaka in the rankings. The Japanese player has secured her top ranking through Indian Wells - where she’s the defending champion - but after falling at the first hurdle in Dubai, it’s allowed Halep to close the gap between them with each passing round.
“It was really difficult physically,” Halep admitted. “I was tired. After the second set, I felt like I'm getting cramping a little bit. It's normal. I was sweating a lot. She played very well. In the end, she was a little bit stronger.”
Bencic got off to a dream start against the former World No.1, breaking first and fighting to a 2-0 lead after weathering four deuces to hold. A game later, she had points to extend her lead to a double break - but Halep slammed the door on that possibility and her aggressive returns earned her a break back to level at 2-2.
Halep took the lead late in the set, breaking Bencic at a crucial moment to earn a 5-3 advantage - but Bencic had other ideas. She stopped Halep, who was serving for the set, and a double fault off the Romanian’s racquet surrendered the break. But still, Halep didn’t panic, applying pressure to the Bencic serve and finally broke back to take the set.
The second set started out much like the first - with Bencic earning an early break, and then Halep getting it back a game later to make it 1-1. But despite the parity in the scoreline it seemed like Halep was in the driver's seat for most of the set. She created multiple chances to break - one at 2-2 and another at 3-3 - and had Bencic running from end to end.
But Bencic - who learned last round to never count herself out - stayed within touching distance from Halep, and her determination and patience eventually paid off. She raised her level and reeled off three games in a row, earning the decisive break at 5-3 to send them into a deciding set.
Bencic stayed in control for the next three games - to make it six games in a row - and started the final set with a daunting double-break lead for 3-0. But the former World No.1 never backed down and, with the Dubai crowd chanting “Si-mo-na” in her support, she charged back to get one of the breaks and hold serve to narrow the gap to 3-2.
Despite her efforts, Halep seemed to lose more and more energy as the match wore on. Bencic righted the ship to break Halep once more at 5-2, and needed three match points to close out her spot in the semifinals.
“With fighting, with staying in the match,” Bencic revealed her key to victory. “I'm happy I didn't give up. I didn't give her any free points. I was still there. Then she gave me something, as well.
“I’m really pleased that I made her play those shots, as well, do what she does to me. Yeah, really pleased about that.”
Bencic now awaits the winner between No.6 seed Elina Svitolina - the two-time defending champion here - and Carla Suarez Navarro, former Doha winner.