Belinda Bencic Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Swiss youngster Belinda Bencic announced her return into the big league while stopping two-time defending champion Elina Svitolina’s bid for a hat-trick and setting up a final encounter with former champion Petra Kvitova at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

Chasing a third straight crown and a slice of history in Dubai, the two-time champion had dug her way out from a set down and was headed to victory when Bencic intervened. The 21-year-old Bencic, a one-time world number seven - exactly three years back in 2016 - was nearly down and out in the deciding third set after being broken by Svitolina in the seventh game.

But, the gutsy girl from Switzerland simply refused to give up as she broke back in the tenth to draw level 5-5 and then send the encounter into a tie-breaker that she went on to win 7-3 in nearly two hours before an admiring centre court crowd.

“The great atmosphere helped a lot as it pushed us both to give our best. I feel like I am playing my best when I am trailing. Maybe I should try to be in the same position in tomorrow’s final,” Bencic joked.

“It’s a weird situation to be in. I feel relaxed and yet I am out there fighting for every point without any sort of pressure. Honestly this may be because I have nothing to lose,” she added.

Bencic was off to a flyer as she came up with two quick breaks to take the opening set 6-2 in 26 minutes. That the two-time defending champion was error-prone would be an understatement, given the fact that she committed ten unforced errors compared to half the number from Bencic in that first set.

The second was quite a complex set as Svitolina continued to struggle with her rhythm to drop serve early. But, she dug in deep and broke back to draw level 2-2. The two exchanged breaks once again, but Svitolina came up with something special when it mattered most to take the set 6-3 in a gripping 34 minutes, much to the delight of the weekend crowd on centre court.

Making her first Premier-level final in over three years, Bencic’s opponent in Saturday’s final will be 2013 champion Kvitova after the 28-year-old Czech made her way into a third straight final of the season following a 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 win against a tricky Su-wei Hsieh in the first semi-final.

Kvitova had won her 26th career title at the Sydney Open and then lost in three sets to world number one Naomi Osaka in the 2019 Australian Open final last month. Playing before an appreciative crowd on Thursday, the Czech battled over three sets for the third time this week and improve her career record against the girl from Taiwan to 4-0.

“She [Kvitova] is in great form at the moment, especially after the Australian Open final where I was rooting for her simply because she is a great champion and she deserved to win it. It will be an honour to play her in the final here,” Bencic admitted.

“I will give my best tomorrow and try to win it,” she added.

Saturday’s play will witness the doubles final starting at 5 pm followed by the singles final between Kvitova and Svitolina at 7 pm.

RESULTS

(Doubles semi-finals) Lucie Hradecka/Ekaterina Makarova bt Lara Arruabarrena/Kaitlyn Christian 6-2, 6-4; Su-wei Hsieh/Barbora Strycova vs Hao-Ching Chan/Latisha Chan ****.

(Singles semi-finals) Petra Kvitova bt Su-wei Hsieh 6-3, 2-6, 6-4; Belinda Bencic bt Elina Svitolina 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (3).