The Romanians are coming

Romanians are hitting lots of winners these days, and now five women are ranked in the top 100 with newcomer Patricia Maria Tig almost there. "Viitorul va fi stralucitor!" as they say in Romania. "The future will be bright!"

Simona Halep... the best Romanian woman since 1978 French Open champion Virginia Ruzici.   -  Getty Images

Sorana Cirstea... after ascending to a career-high No. 21 in 2013, she plummeted to No. 248 last year because of a debilitating shoulder injury. To alleviate the stress Cirstea switched to an abbreviated service motion and played $25,000 ITF tournaments, the minor league of pro tennis, to get some much-needed and confidence-building wins.   -  Getty Images

“We thought it was the Romanian Open yesterday,” quipped Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport. She was referring to the Mutua Madrid Open. The tournament is owned by Romanian billionaire Ion Tiriac, and the rampaging Romanian women players had an extra incentive in wanting to impress Tiriac, the godfather of Romanian tennis.

 

Four Romanians, including two who completely surprised everyone, reached the singles quarterfinals at the upset-filled Madrid clay event. Only World No. 6 Simona Halep was expected to advance that far. Irina-Camelia Begu, ranked No. 34, Sorana Cirstea, a wild card ranked No. 127, and Patricia Maria Tig, a qualifier ranked No. 134, also made it with their best performances of the year.

The best Romanian woman since 1978 French Open champion Virginia Ruzici, Halep exploded to win her first six titles in 2013. A year later, she displayed her prowess on clay at the French Open where she nearly beat Maria Sharapova in a sensational final. The stylish baseliner ended 2015 ranked a career-high No. 2, but a leg tendon injury and a stomach virus resulted in several bad losses through April this season.

Pain-free again, and regaining her elite form under the astute coaching of Darren Cahill, Halep routed Misaki Doi, Karin Knapp, and 10th-seeded Timea Bacsinszky en route to the Madrid quarterfinals. There, she overcame a disastrous middle set to take out compatriot Begu 6-3, 0-6, 6-1 in an encounter marred by controversy.

Although one on-court coaching visit is allowed each set on the WTA Tour, Halep complained that Begu was receiving illegal instructions from her coach in the stands throughout the match and wasn’t punished for the infraction. Then Halep galloped past Samantha Stosur 6-2, 6-0 in the semis and Dominika Cibulkova 6-2, 6-4 in the final for her 12th career title.

“Simona is rebuilding her game and confidence,” says Ruzici, Halep’s manager and the leading authority on Romanian women’s tennis. “Sometimes it’s better to fall a bit so you can come back stronger.” If so, the resurgent Halep’s timing could not be better with the French Open starting on May 22. Sharapova, the 2012 and 2014 champion, is provisionally suspended for taking a banned substance. Serena Williams, the 2013 and 2015 titlist, has competed in only three tournaments in the past eight months, winning none of them, and is woefully short of match play. This gives Halep a wonderful opportunity to capture her first Grand Slam title.

Begu, a year older than Halep at 25, enjoyed her breakthrough season in 2014 when she jumped from No. 124 to No. 42 in the rankings. She consolidated that gain last year by making the Round of 16 at the Australian Open and French Open, and continued this year by reaching the Round of 16 at Miami and quarterfinals at Charleston. Sustaining that momentum, the 5’11” Begu racked up impressive three-set victories in Madrid over No. 4 Garbine Muguruza, 2014 Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard, and tough competitor Christina McHale.

 

“She is powerful and has an all-around game with good technique and fighting spirit,” assesses Ruzici. “She needs more aggressiveness and self-belief to reach her top 20 potential.”

Nothing in sports is more inspiring than a comeback story, and Cirstea’s Madrid success portends exactly that. There she defeated former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, Danka Kovinic, and Laura Siegemund, who knocked off three top-tenners at Stuttgart a week earlier, before taking a set off Cibulkova in the quarters.

After ascending to a career-high No. 21 in 2013, Cirstea plummeted to No. 248 last year because of a debilitating shoulder injury. To alleviate the stress, she switched to an abbreviated service motion and played $25,000 ITF tournaments, the minor league of pro tennis, to get some much-needed and confidence-building wins.

That humbling experience changed her perspective about tennis and life. On the WTA website, Cirstea confides: “I actually told my coach the other day, ‘If I’d had this head two or three years ago, I’d be in a different place right now,’ but I think it’s about growing up and maturing, and having this team I have right now, I’m very happy. We communicate very well.

“The most important thing for me is how I see tennis right now: I’m lucky to be here, and I appreciate it. I’m not taking anything for granted anymore, because I remember when I was staying at home on my couch watching the matches. It’s nice, so I want to enjoy every single day because it goes very quickly.”

Ruzici is cautiously optimistic about Cirstea. “At the beginning of her career, I thought that she had top 10 potential,” recalls Ruzici. “Unfortunately, it did not happen, maybe because she was not as strong mentally and her game was too risky. Of course, her shoulder injury and the long recovery set her career back.

“But she’s an incredible attacker with very fast and strong shots,” says Ruzici. “She’s coming back with a more mature game and a trimmer physique, which permits her to defend better and be more patient. I think that with patience she can play at a high level again and create some surprises.”

Tig, a household name chiefly in her own household, created the biggest surprises of all in Madrid. The slender 21-year-old was so unknown that the WTA didn’t even list her residence, birth place, height, and weight on its website. That didn’t seem to matter given that she hadn’t won a main-draw match on the WTA Tour this year when she arrived in Madrid.

Then Tig began her incredible run. After two qualifying round wins, she upset fast-rising teenager, No. 32-ranked Daria Kasatkina 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 in her main draw opener. Gaining momentum, she stunned two talented Americans who have reached the semis at a major: No. 16 Sloane Stephens 6-2, 6-3 and No. 25 Madison Keys 6-3, 6-4. Stosur, the 2011 U.S. Open champion, finally ousted Tig 6-3, 6-4.

Ruzici is bullish about Tig. “I like her playing style,” says Ruzici. “She has a good serve and solid groundstrokes and uses angles well. She’s tall, and for her height, she bends her knees well on low balls. She needs to strengthen her legs and get faster, and of course, gain experience. But she has nice potential and is definitely an interesting prospect.”

And let’s not forget No. 31-ranked Monica Niculescu, the oldest (28) and most unconventional (slice forehand) Romanian. Niculescu was honoured for hitting April’s WTA Shot of the Month (see it on www.wtatennis.com) with a whopping 79% of fan votes. It happened in her thrilling three-setter against two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart. Niculescu finished off a dynamite rally — consisting of powerful groundstrokes, overheads, lobs, and a drop shot — with a lunging backhand down-the-line winner.

Romanians are hitting lots of winners these days, and now five women are ranked in the top 100 with newcomer Tig almost there. “Viitorul va fi stralucitor!” as they say in Romania. “The future will be bright!”