DUBAI, UAE - Belinda Bencic never lost the belief that she could find the level of tennis that has put her into the semifinals of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships this week, but she also knew it would take some time. The 21-year-old who made her Top 10 debut in 2016 and rose to a career-high No.7 as a prodigious teen, scored back-to-back Top 10 wins over No.9 Aryna Sabalenka and No.2 Simona Halep this week for the first time since 2015.
After a series of injuries - back injury, wrist surgery, a pre-stress fracture in her foot - derailed her climb, Bencic found herself ranked outside the Top 300 in September 2017. It's been a hard climb back to build, starting on the ITF Circuit, working her way through qualifying, and now tallying the wins that were once expected just three years ago, but Bencic's work ethic and patience has finally paid off for all to see.
"It feels great," Bencic told reporters after defeating Halep in the quarterfinals. "I'm just really happy. I'm back.
"I knew it was still in me, even after the injuries. You cannot just come back like this and play [great right away]. Otherwise, it wouldn't show how good tennis is.
"Players are playing two, three years constantly on the level, they're playing semifinals, finals. You cannot just expect to be back after the injury and play like this.
"I had to work my way back. I knew it was in me, but I'm happy that I could finally show it."
Bencic will return to the Top 35 with her semifinal run in Dubai, her first Premier 5 semifinal since her incredible run to the 2015 Rogers Cup title, where she defeated four Top 10 players - including then No.1 Serena Williams - to win the biggest title of her career.
Asked if there was ever a moment in the last two years that she thought the tour might have moved on from her to the next big thing, Bencic said it did not cross her mind.
"I'm not a person who needs attention all the time," Bencic said. "If it comes naturally, I don't mind it, but I'm not forcing it, I'm not looking for it.
"I had no problem with being in the shadow. Actually it felt really good, playing 25Ks where there is no one there, just you. There's no stream. There's just a live ticker. You can play very free. There's no expectation, no attention. It felt good. I also don't mind this, of course. But it's not like I needed it."
"I think for the comeback, it was the best [to start at the lower levels] because it's not easy if you're coming back. You were up there, then after injury you play on the big court, everybody is like, She's back, she needs to win now, this and this.
"It was good. I didn't even take the protected ranking. I started in the lower tournaments. I tried to build my confidence up."
That healthy perspective about her career has paid dividends. Throughout her climb back, Bencic did not panic when results did not go her way. The tennis was there, she simply needed matches to rediscover her intelligent, instinctual game.
Against Sabalenka in the quarterfinals, Bencic's fighting instincts were put to the test and she came through with flying colors, saving six match points to win 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(9). Against Halep, Bencic's game flowed beautifully, as she consistently trapped Halep well behind the baseline and opened up angles with ease.
"My dad came to the court today, he told me one good thing," Bencic said. "It was: Do you realize who do you even play, where you play? Be a little bit grateful for that. I think that was good."
Bencic says she's keeping a level head as she continues to chase the ranking heights she reached just three years ago. Still only 21, the Swiss star is wise beyond her years.
"I think everybody needs to go through this period," Bencic said. "There's a lot of players now, as well, that are in the top 10 that are struggling a little bit because it's attention, it's new. They're just trying to find a way. I'm sure they will find it at some point.
"I think everybody has to go through it. I went through it a little bit earlier, which I think is an advantage. I'm 21 and I feel like I'm so wise," she said with a laugh.