'S-HERTOGENBOSCH, Netherlands - Belinda Bencic knows her tennis is there. She just needs her body to cooperate.
The Swiss prodigy became the youngest woman to break into the Top 10 since 2009 when she made her Top 10 debut in February 2016 as an 18-year-old, but has struggled with a myriad of injuries since. A back injury sidelined her two months in 2016. Then came wrist surgery, which kept her off tour for five months last season.
But her preternatural ball-striking has never been in question. When she returned to action last fall she finished the season on a 28-3 tear to get back in the Top 100. The start of 2018 looked promising, as she ousted Venus Williams in the first round of the Australian Open. Then the injury blues struck again, as she was forced out of the Miami Open with a pre-stress fracture in her foot.
"The last few months have been difficult," Bencic told WTA Insider after her first round win at the Libema Open. "6-8 weeks of rest, with no weight on the foot. That's what I did. I tried to keep fit, do the bike, core exercises. I was kind of practicing but not full.
"I was kind of ready for Roland Garros, but I hadn't practiced much. I felt fine, but obviously you need a lot of practice. But I decided to go to Roland Garros to see the tournament and just play.
"I unexpectedly won my first round and the second round was ok too, but I felt like my game wasn't there. I hadn't practiced much so it was normal. I wasn't expecting much. But now it's much better. I've been practicing normal since the week before Roland Garros until now.
"I'm looking out for my body but I'm trying to get fit and trying to get the match play. That's the first thing that goes away, the eyes, the timing. That's really tough. You can only get it back in matches. In practice you cannot simulate it."
"That happens when you play a lot of matches. That feeling always comes back when you're playing 5-6 matches in one tournament and playing the finals. You don't really think anymore. It happens automatically.
"I lost this automatism. You have to work for it and it comes back eventually. But it's very tough without it."
After skipping most of the clay season, Bencic looked solid in her first match back on her beloved grass, a 6-2, 6-4 win over Tereza Martincova. Now ranked No.61, Bencic's grass-court credentials are strong. The former junior No.1 won the girls title at Wimbledon 2013. Two years later when she won the 2015 title in Eastbourne, she became the youngest woman to win a Premier-level title since Caroline Wozniacki (2008 New Haven).
"It felt great," Bencic said. "Obviously I love grass so the first moment I step on the practice court and play the first balls, it feels natural and positive. That was the case this year too.
"The bounce, everything, I don't have to adjust my game at all. It goes perfectly because of the low bounce. I like that a lot. It just feels much better than clay."
"This year it's a little bit different because I haven't played much and I'm just coming back and stuff. So I'm hoping the grass can boost me up again. So far it's going good. I think I played a great match. I felt comfortable, so I'm hoping I can keep going like that."
Aside from keeping her body together, the key for Bencic is to keep her eyes forward. A former junior No.1 who enjoyed a near-seamless transition to the women's tour, Bencic won two strong Premier-level titles in 2015 on the grass in Eastbourne and the hardcourts of Toronto, where she defeated Serena Williams and Simona Halep. But success can haunt you, and Bencic admits she's struggled to put her past success behind her as she looks to re-cement herself at the top of the game.
"Sometimes I'm too tough on myself and I'm comparing myself with my best, when I was playing a lot of matches and in rhythm," Bencic said. "That's not fair."
"The thing is, I always try to be perfect in practice or in matches and you always have high expectations because you always remember how you played when you were at your best. So then you always compare yourself with that and that is very dangerous because it can destroy you, because you play a few days at your best and other times you play but win with the fight.
"It's important for me that I remember that I'm just playing and even if I play bad, at least I'm playing. That's good. I have to remind myself this."
"I know that if I can be healthy, I believe in myself that I can be good. But the fear for me is not being healthy. When I have aches or pains, I start panicking.
"Of course you have doubts that you can never come back, but then you see when you're practicing with other girls, Ok, I can still play. When I get healthy I can really come back. That belief is really important because you see everyone is playing and getting better and you're not. I really think when I'm healthy I can be good."
When I joke that she's become much more philosophical as she's gotten older, Bencic extends her hand for a handshake. "Hi, I'm Belinda Bencic, I'm 44 years old," she says laughing.
"It's good to have perspective, but also kind of dangerous because you're overthinking. I miss those times in juniors when you're like hey, I'm at a tournament! Let's go play! Boom, boom, boom!
"Sometimes it's better to just turn off your head and just play. The more you know about tennis the worse it is!"
For Belinda Bencic, here's hoping the path and the mind stay clear from here on out. Because when she plays freely and at her best, it really is boom, boom, boom.