The rise and rise of Mihaela Buzarnescu

After a sensational season capped by a title in San Jose, RealSport look at the rise of Mihaela Buzarnescu out of injury-caused obscurity into the game’s elite.

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(Photo credit: Steven Pisano)

At the start of the 2018 season, Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu was ranked 72nd in the world. Certainly not a bad ranking and a significant improvement on her ranking of 377th in the world at the beginning of 2017. Indeed, it was the first time she’d begun a year ranked inside the top 100 in her career, her previous best year-end ranking having been #155 in 2011. She achieved it in large part thanks to some strong late season form in 2017, highlighted by a run to the semifinals in Linz.

But there was little on the surface to indicate just how impressive her 2018 season was going to be. At least not to those who hadn’t been following Buzarnescu’s career. For those familiar with the Romanian, her rise, which has taken her into the top 20, was as unremarkable as it was impressive. Her talent has never been in doubt, but her body had held her back for so long. She seems to have spent more time over the last decade on the treatment table than the tennis court.

Shoulder and knee injuries, the latter being the more serious and eventually requiring two surgeries, were the main culprits in what can only have been a period of intense frustration for Buzarnescu. Not that she wasted her time. Far from it. For she may have been prevented from exercising her body, but she could still exercise her mind and she did just that, earning a PhD in sports science from the National Academy of Physical Education and Sport in Bucharest.

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A Parisian breakout

It was during the clay court season that Buzarnescu first announced herself to the wider tennis world by making a run to the final in Prague. Along the way she defeated top 100 stalwarts Kristyna Pliskova and Camila Giorgi, who recently made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. In the final Petra Kvitova proved too strong, winning 4-6 6-2 6-3, but Buzarnescu had shown her quality, and having also reached the final in Hobart earlier in the year, was building some real momentum.

Momentum that came together for her at Roland Garros. She arrived in the French capital without a win in a Grand Slam main draw, but she rectified that swiftly with a 6-3 6-3 win over Vania King of the United States. She then crushed Sweden’s Rebecca Peterson to set up a clash with two-time Italian Open champion and pre-tournament favourite Elina Svitolina. The Ukrainian brought all the star-power, but it was Buzarnescu who played the better tennis, stunning her opponent 6-3 7-5.

Though Buzarnescu was already seeded when she arrived at Roland Garros, a testament in itself to her rapid rise, it feels in many ways that her run in Paris was, if not the making of her, the step she needed to take her game to the next level. She backed it up by reaching the third round at Wimbledon where she lost narrowly to seventh seed Karolina Pliskova. But she was unquestionably in the big time and ready for a summer of success.

The taste of triumph

Her first post-Wimbledon outing was a fine run to the semifinals in Bucharest where she was seeded second. She lost out to fourth seed Petra Martic there, but put her disappointment behind her quickly in San Jose. The Romanian was competing alongside names as stellar as Venus and Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza, Victoria Azarenka and Madison Keys, and outlasted them all. Indeed, she was a woman on a mission all week in California and none could stand before her.

Elise Mertens, who has enjoyed such success this season, was outfought in the semifinals. Then Maria Sakkari, who had scored impressive win after impressive win all week, was crushed 6-1 6-0 in the final. It was Buzarnescu’s first title at Tour-level and she joined a list of champions that includes Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters and both the Williams sisters. Certainly not bad company to be in.

And whilst Buzarnescu will surely never scale such heights as the all-time greats listed above, she has proven this year that eventually talent and dedication will be rewarded. Now at a career-high ranking of 18th in the world, she can go in to the rest of the hard court swing full of confidence. Indeed, the fast courts of North America have rewarded her excellent returning and aggressive hitting from the back of the court. So much so that there may well be more to come from Buzarnescu.

What do you think the future holds for Buzarnescu? Let us know in the comments below!

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