Belinda Bencic decided to celebrate her title in the talent-laden Dubai Championships by ignoring the advice of just about everyone. After recovering from a proverbial free fall early in her tennis career, the gifted 21-year-old Swiss was resolved to experience the real thing and went skydiving.
"I'm providing a lot of heart attacks on the court," an elated Bencic told reporters after she upset No. 2-ranked Petra Kvitova in the final of the Premier 5 event. "Now I'm going to provide heart attacks off the court."
Bencic survived, just as she did earlier in the week against an elite group of women. Bencic navigated through one heart-thumping battle after another, outlasting four consecutive top-10 opponents. First, she saved six match points against Aryna Sabalenka, before taking out French Open champion Simona Halep in the quarters and then Elina Svitolina in a third-set tiebreaker to reach the final. By comparison, Bencic's 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 win against Kvitova to win the championship was the most seamless part of her week.
Bencic's run in Dubai is yet more proof the WTA tour is like a magician's top hat. It keeps producing Grand Slam contenders as if the supply is inexhaustible. Look no further than the recent trajectory of Naomi Osaka.
Those who felt Osaka -- the first woman to win consecutive majors since Serena Williams in 2015 -- is imposing order on the elite top 10 should no longer be confident. In a stunning move, Osaka recently fired her coach, Sascha Bajin, who had guided her from No. 70 in the world to the top spot and two Grand Slam titles in four months. Osaka was beaten in the first round of Dubai by No. 67 Kristina Mladenovic, while Bencic played her best tennis in years.
"I'm just really happy I'm back," said Bencic, alluding to the combination of slump and injury that left her ranked No. 199 in spring 2017. "I knew it was still in me."
Bencic had good reason to keep the faith, based on the sometimes spectacular results she has produced. Bencic was a closely watched prodigy as she developed her game under the guidance of Martina Hingis' mother, Melanie Molitor. Bencic won a junior Wimbledon title, then burst into the limelight in 2014 when, still just 17, she reached the US Open quarterfinals. The last person to achieve that feat at that age came more than a decade and a half earlier by Hingis herself.
The comparison didn't end there. Bencic has a silken game, long on precision, mobility and impregnable groundstrokes -- and a lovely talent for redirecting balls in the course of rally. Her grasp of strategy was precocious.
"I have a good tactic when I go to the court," Bencic said. "I think it's my weapon. I may not have the most powerful game or something. But I try to find the weakness in the opponent's game."
That preternatural maturity paid off in 2015, when Bencic won the Rogers Cup, another Premier 5 event, with a series of high-quality wins capped by an upset of the top-seeded Williams. The win lifted Bencic's ranking to No. 12, but her engine began to sputter and cough within a year. She ventured close to becoming a "too much, too soon" cautionary tale as her results tanked. Bencic left the tour to regroup and get fit again in April 2017.
After a five-month hiatus, Bencic began a long, slow rebuilding process. Without a protected ranking, she struggled through minor league WTA events and was out of the spotlight.
"I'm not a person who needs attention all the time," Bencic said. "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. Yeah, there's no expectation, no attention. It felt good."
By the end of the 2017, Bencic was back on the main tour and thriving, thanks to improved fitness, movement and -- most of all -- patience. "I had to work my way back," she said. "You cannot just come back like this and play at a high level. Otherwise, it wouldn't show how good tennis is."
The peak-and-valley nature of Bencic's career thus far is a pink, if not fully red, flag, but it's offset by the knack she has shown in fighting through tense, bitterly close matches against elite opponents. She did it in her two impressive title wins, Toronto and Dubai. The poise Bencic demonstrated is a trait commonly associated with the man who helped Bencic lock down the Hopman Cup event to begin the year on a high note, Roger Federer.
"I'm trying to be as calm as him," Bencic said the day before her Dubai final. "I know I'm far, far, far away from that. I'm trying."
Bencic seems to be making progress in that quest, and that's fair warning to her rivals on the target-rich WTA landscape.