Belinda Bencic's return to competition after a five-month injury setback has far exceeded even the Swiss phenom's own expectations. Opting to forgo main draw wildcards or wait an extra month for her protected ranking to kick in, the 20-year-old immediately found her form on the ITF Circuit. Since her return in September, Bencic has won four titles, including back-to-back WTA 125K Series titles in HuaHin and Taipei, culminating last weekend with a title at the ITF 100K Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge in Dubai. She has dropped just one set in her last 15 matches and has seen her ranking rise from outside the Top 300 to No.74 on Monday.
But don't call it a comeback. She's just picking up where she left off.
"I don't think it's a restart," Bencic told WTA Insider. "I think all the top players had a surgery or some injuries at some point. It's just a continuation. I overcame this time and I'm just continuing from before."
Bencic, a two-time junior Slam champion and former junior No.1, enjoyed her breakout WTA season in 2015. As an 18-year-old, she defeated then No.1 Serena Williams en route to the Rogers Cup title in Toronto. That season she also won the title in Eastbourne and made the Tokyo and s'Hertogenbosch finals. Last year she became the youngest Top 10 debutante since Caroline Wozniacki, peaking at a career-high No.7 in February of 2016.
Bencic's body finally caught up to her in the spring of 2016. First came lower back injuries that ruled her out of the clay season. Then came the far more serious left wrist pain, which she tried to manage for nine months. Able to score only one tour-level win in 2017, Bencic finally decided enough was enough. It was time to undergo surgery.
"One tendon kept jumping out of that place in the wrist," Bencic explained. "So it had to get reattached. Now it's completely good. I'm so thankful to the doctor. He's a wrist expert and he also did the surgery for Magdalena Rybarikova. A lot of tennis players with wrist injuries went to him."
Bencic would not pick up a tennis racquet for two months after the surgery and it took another month until she could finally start hitting backhands. Using smaller racquets and soft balls, Bencic started with just five minutes of backhands a day and cautiously ramped it up from there.
"The start was very hard because I had the surgery and then I had the cast, and I didn't know if it worked," Bencic said. "I was nervous. Did it help, or was this the right step? I was doubting myself a lot."
"On the other hand, it was really nice to be at home, to see my family, to be with my friends. That was nice for a while, but then I started feeling impatient. Once I started hitting forehands, I was practicing all the time. I missed playing the points, the competition.
"But I see the positives. I sorted out some things at home, I was home a lot with my family. But after a while, I just really wanted to travel again. It's always like this. When you're on the tour you're tired and you want to go home. But when you're home you're like oh no, I have to get out of here."
Five months after her surgery she was back on court, not just competing, but winning. Bencic won the first tournament she played, taking the title at the ITF 100K in the St. Petersburg in September.
"I wasn't expecting to win or anything," Bencic said. "It felt really strange to be on the court again. It felt like I never played tennis before, I was so rusty. You don't feel at home on the court. It was a very strange feeling but I was really appreciating that I could play again. I wasn't really expecting much from me, just being happy with every backhand that I hit.
"The first tournament I had low expectations, but I tried to play better. The first tournament I wasn't pissed at all if I missed a ball. But by the second tournament, it came back," she said, laughing.
Bencic would go on to win 28 of the 31 matches she played across all levels since her surgery, finishing her season on a 15-match win streak. Bencic's run earned her direct entry into the Australian Open and validated her decision to forgo a protected ranking and not rely on main draw wildcards to work her way back.
"I just didn't feel ready at all, after five months of not playing, to take a wildcard into Tokyo or something, which is super strong," Bencic said. "It was kind of an easy decision. I also decided against the protected ranking, because I was ready to play after five months. I didn't want to wait an extra month, because there would be no more tournaments, like in Linz or Luxembourg. So I started earlier with my weaker ranking. The goal was to be in qualifying for the Australian Open. It wasn't until the last moment that I got into the main draw. If I don't win the Taipei final I'm not in.
"It was a good decision. I got a lot of matches, played the tournaments in silence, and it was very good for me. I'm used to the ITF tournaments. It's not like it was a huge new thing for me. It was normal."
Bencic used her time away from the tour to sort out her team for the 2018 season. After being coached by her father Ivan, Bencic has hired Elina Svitolina's former coach Iain Hughes and the two have been working together since July.
"It was just a matter of time," Bencic said. "My father is still following very closely and I'm still so grateful for my parents for giving me everything. But now I'm becoming an adult too. So it's a normal, natural decision from both sides. I'm super satisfied. Since the first week of practicing it was very good, so it was not a hard decision to work with Iain.
"He has a lot of experience, very tactical, very calm. I feel like I can put my game a little bit more on the right level. I feel like he can add something. So far it's going very good."
More from WTA Insider's interview with Bencic:
WTA Insider: Were you following the tour while you were off? What did you make of the 2017 WTA season?
Bencic: I was following for sure. I feel like it's so crazy when I'm at a tournament all day and I come home and I still put on the tennis channel. It's with all of us. I was watching Roland Garros after the surgery. I missed it a lot. I was watching the matches and following the results.
Seven players being able to be No.1, it was so close! It was very tense. It just shows how open it is now and what a chance it is for other players to go through as well. You have to be consistent every tournament to do well. Wozniacki did well in the Finals. I missed it a lot.
But I was happy to come back at the smaller tournaments. It was less pressure for me, it was less attention at the tournament itself. I wanted to work my way back and not just take a wildcard and not be prepared for this kind of level, then lose first round, second round. I just wanted to get matches and work my way back up.
WTA Insider: You were 18-years-old when you broke into the Top 10. You were quite open about how part of the reason why you were able to sustain your level and ranking is that you had been relatively healthy. Other players in your age group that you had played juniors with, like Ana Konjuh, had really struggled with injuries.
Bencic: Yeah, and that's not what peoples saw. I was Top 10 in that moment and I was for sure playing more than I should, it was a lesson, but in a really normal way. All the top players had this at one time and everyone has to overcome it and be stronger and learn from it. I saw it as an opportunity to be home and sort my team out and go back again. It was obviously not easy to accept. It was hard, sad, and devastating, but it was good.
WTA Insider: So what's your schedule to start the season?
Bencic: I'll play Hopman Cup and then the Australian Open. It's such a huge opportunity when Roger asks me to play with him. It's such a huge highlight. I knew it from before the surgery, so it was something to look forward to, to get fit for that. So hopefully I can be at my best there and it will be great.