Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep are among the WTA players to have experienced incredible runs on the tennis circuit at some point over the past 12 months. But, for entirely different reasons, Mihaela Buzarnescu’s WTA rise within that time frame has been just as phenomenal.
Exactly a year ago, the 30-year-old Romanian was ranked world no. 374 and competing at an ITF event in Hungary. Fast forward one year, and Buzarnescu is beginning her Nature Valley Open campaign as the fifth seed – having entered the world’s top 30 for the first time on Monday.
Rises like this – a long-time player in their thirties suddenly flourishing out of the blue – are pretty much unheard of in tennis. Prior to 2017, Buzarnescu had never been ranked inside the world’s top 100, with persistent injuries and a general lack of form plaguing her throughout her 13 year career. But as the niggling physical woes began to subside, other factors allowed the left-hander to stride towards career-best results.
“I had a lot of motivation, and that helped me [to progress],” the Romanian reflected after her opening round victory at the Nature Valley Open on Tuesday. “And also mental strategies – changing everything in the way of thinking. Because of that [mental change], there were changes in the tennis game, as well.”
Buzarnescu also credits members of her team for her meteoric rankings rise – which has been aided by a maiden WTA final appearance in January, and a recent run to the French Open fourth round. The man she credits most of all is her coach: Fratila Septimiu. It is no coincidence that she began working with Septimiu following her appearance at the Hungary ITF event last season.
“He really helped me to get through all these tournaments and get all these results,” Buzarnescu emphasised. “My attitude made it change and helped me win more matches, but also my team, and my new coach.
“My father was always there for me, too, and I started to play tennis because of him. But it was really good that I started working with another coach, and I’m very happy about it.”
Buzarnescu’s newfound mental composure has unlocked the door to her full potential, allowing her deep, consistent groundstrokes to thrive – as seen on Tuesday in Nottingham. That first round clash with former world no. 73 Veronica Cepede Royg also hinted at how much of a part Septimiu has played in her development.
Deep into her encounter with Cepede Royg – the Paraguayan who caused Petra Kvitova trouble in the opening round of the French Open – Buzarnescu held multiple match points on the return. She failed to convert them all, including a backhand put-away that she thwacked into the net. Following these missed opportunities, the world no. 30 descended into emotional torrents of Romanian, at times appearing on the verge of tears.
“I was saying some not nice things, complaining a bit,” Buzarnescu admitted. “[Saying things like] I’m alone here, and I have nobody that came from my team, which is really not so good for me.
“I needed somebody, and I just tried my best to manage it myself. Because sometimes it happens that you have to be alone in tournaments.”
It is interesting to note the difference that simply having a support team courtside can make – even if on-court coaching is not an option (which it would have been in Nottingham.) But ultimately, the no. 5 seed displayed just how much she has improved in 12 short months: coming from 5-3 down in the deciding tiebreak to claim a 6-2 3-6 7-6(5) victory.
“I just held my nerve at the end, because I was so nervous and tight in the second set,” Buzarnescu summarised.
“[Cepede Royg] is a really good player, she’s had many good results. And for me, I was playing on grass too quickly, because I only had one day yesterday to play on it and adjust to the surface and everything. There were some tough calls at the end of the match, and I just focussed a bit more.”
Small alterations such as this can make a huge difference to a player’s game, as Buzarnescu’s speedy WTA ascent demonstrates. But for all her great form and dedication, the world no. 30 is not Romania’s headline tennis story at present. World no. 1 Simona Halep’s French Open triumph on Sunday has gripped the nation, with around 20,000 people packing out an arena to watch the national superstar bring her maiden Grand Slam trophy home.
“I watched a bit of the second set – mostly the beginning and the end, because I was on a trip so it was hard for me to watch,” Buzarnescu shared regarding the Roland Garros final. “And I was really happy that she managed to come back. That was the key of the match, when she came back from a set and two-love down.”
She continued: “Tennis is big because of [Halep] in the last three years in Romania. Beforehand it was not so promoted, and not so big. And I hope that now, after my results this year and really good results from my other friends, tennis will be bigger, and we will get more support from the Romanian Federation and from the Romanian sponsors, or from other countries. Because we never exactly had so much support. And also, for the young kids, I hope they get more support.”
Whatever the trials throughout her career, Buzarnescu is certainly making up for lost time now. The grass-court season stretches ahead, and the rising force – who has never competed in a Wimbledon main draw before – has a game that fits the surface well. Her lefty serve was especially tough to return on the Nottingham lawns when finding its mark.
“I just hope I can get a chance to play more and more matches on the grass so I can adjust better,” she reflected. “And I think it’s really interesting to play on a surface like grass, it’s amazing.
“Everything is bouncing different, and you need to be careful of the running and how you have to hit the ball, and how you have to coordinate yourself. So I’m happy that I managed to be main draw and [that I will be] playing all these events on grass-courts, and hopefully I get to play as much as possible.”
With her climb up the WTA ladder swift, and with few points to defend, there is no telling where the limit is for Buzarnescu’s late-blooming career. And it is her careful approach that is making all the difference.
“I have a goal for my ranking, that I also had when I was young, but I never have goals when I get into tournaments,” the Romanian no. 2 shared. “For me, the most important thing is when I have a match, to just play that match and then you will see [what happens afterwards]. So of course, my goal is to play more matches on the grass, and we will see the result at the end.”
And Buzarnescu, who will partner Heather Watson in the Nature Valley Open doubles this week, it not ready to slow down.
“I really enjoy playing, so I really want to play tournaments – I don’t want to take breaks,” the no. 5 seed shared. “Okay, at some point my body will probably need some rest. But for the moment I’m okay, I feel good, and matches actually keep me in the rhythm. So if I’m healthy, I want to play.”
Mihaela Buzarnescu is as focussed as she is passionate, and the coming weeks herald real opportunities to climb even higher up the rankings. In the most intriguing non-headline tennis story of the past year, this is a woman worth keeping an eye on.