In the Nic(ulescu) of Time: Living on the Slice’s Edge
After an eventful Fed Cup weekend back home in Romania, Monica Niculescu arrived in Stuttgart fairly late and was back on court to play her first match early Wednesday, facing France’s Caroline Garcia in her first round. The Romanian wrapped up a 6-2, 6-2 win over the big-hitting Frenchwoman, a little while later, she sat down for a post-match interview that went far beyond the average chat. Niculescu touched upon everything from today’s match, playing in Asia, her unorthodox style, loyalty to her coach and so much more.
Monica Niculescu’s dismantling of Caroline Garcia at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix on Wednesday was clinical, particularly if anyone in the crowd on Court 1 needed a primer on the Romanian’s signature brand of tennis.
“I think I played very well,” Niculescu explained after the match. “My serve was going very good, and forehand and backhand, and I moved very well and very confident. I think from the matches from Fed Cup, I got a bit confident. It was very good today because the match was not easy; I don’t think I played Garcia ever. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew she was going to hit the ball very hard, so I was ready and think I did a good job.”
The statistics certainly supported her assessment of her play, as she won 70 percent of her first-serve points and landed her first delivery at a 71 percent success rate; she broke the big-serving Frenchwoman six times in seven chances, and won over 60 percent of points on return as well. However, Niculescu and hard-hitting players are a recipe for interesting results for one key reason — her signature shot, the forehand slice, forces a lot of players to generate their own pace. It rarely ever bounces the same way, particularly on clay, and breaks the rhythm of her opponents — as it did for Garcia on Wednesday.
“I was playing so good in juniors with this slice,” Niculescu exclaimed. “I was winning everything — I was European champion and No. 4 in ITF, so why change it? I didn’t have a coach, I was with my sister [Gabriela reached a career-high of No. 376 in 2005 and competed in eight Fed Cup ties for Romania.] — I don’t know; one day I did this shot, and I kept it!”
During today’s match against Garcia, the Romanian was also buoyed by a small, but vocal, group of supporters out on Court 1.
“I was surprised, because I’m coming from Fed Cup with 7,000 people cheering for me — they were nice. They were saying, ‘Come on, Monica!’ on every changeover so I felt very good.”
Last weekend in Cluj, Niculescu ended up playing a decisive rubber against Andrea Petkovic and was up two match points against the German — with a win, Romania would have leveled the score to 2-2 and forced a live doubles rubber, but Petkovic raced away with 11 of the final 12 points of the second set and eventually gave Germany a 3-1 lead with a 0-6, 7-6(1), 6-3 win.
Although it wasn’t quite the result she wanted, the 28-year-old soaked in the experience of playing in front of a home crowd and took a lot of positives out of Fed Cup this year.
“[Fed Cup] was wonderful. I got a very good feeling. Okay, I lost the match but I felt great. I got a 6-0 from Petkovic, I was so happy! I like so much to play with a crowd. In February [vs. the Czech Republic], I beat Petra Kvitova and had a very good match with [Karolina] Pliskova so I like to play with so many people with my side. If it would be by me, I would play Fed Cup in Cluj every time!” she laughed.
“The people are nice and very kind and they support me; in the end when I lost and had two match points, the people were very nice and they were cheering for me. [It was] a very good feeling. They love tennis, and they like my game. They like that I’m playing unique, like, drop shots and slice. They were very excited about that.”
It’s not just in Cluj where the World No. 31 feels at home. During her career, the two-time WTA title-winner has enjoyed a lot of her success in Asia, particularly China. Niculescu announced herself massively on the tennis stage with a giant-killing run after qualifying for the 2011 Beijing Open, taking out Li Na along the way. It seems only right that one of her two titles came in China — namely at the WTA International event in Guangzhou.
“The people love me there. I don’t want to be…not modest,” Niculescu laughed. “The people like me, they like my slice forehand and I feel so welcome there every time. I remember when I won Guangzhou — they actually put a song [together] for me. I didn’t understand what they were saying because it was Chinese but then I heard ‘Monica! Monica!’ so it was my name [in the song]! I feel very good there, they love my slice!”
While Niculescu’s forehand slice has earned her a reverence amongst tennis devotees in recent years, the Romanian herself struggled to identify with her unorthodox, but very effective, shot and style of tennis for quite some time. In a sport where many of her peers change coaches like kits, Niculescu and coach Călin Stelian Ciorbagiu have been through it all. Ciorbagiu hasn’t just helped his charge with her game, however — he and Niculescu have truly gone through thick and thin and as a result, there is a deep sense of loyalty and respect between coach and player.
“[I’ve been with him for] 11 years. When you find a person and you have tough moments — and I’ve had tough moments in my career — I was No. 200, and then No. 230 and then No. 180, and when I thought I was going to be there, I was again No. 250. He was there. One time, I didn’t have money to go to tournaments and he gave [it to] me. When a good person wants to help you…he was there next to me, like him and my family. I know he is the best option for me.
“Before, I didn’t like too much my forehand because I thought everybody was looking at me, and it’s weird, and I didn’t feel so confident. He said, ‘Listen, it’s a weapon. Believe in yourself and believe in this shot and you will be a great player,’ and I think I am! He believed in me and I think he’s the best person for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen if I were to have another coach, like how I would react.”
These days, Niculescu has become a fixture in the Top 50 of the WTA Tour and while her style remains a vast contrast to many other players, she has a very good idea about where her strengths and weaknesses lie — even if it’s taken her until the age of 28 to feel comfortable in her own shoes on a tennis court.
“I feel I play my best tennis [now], even though three, four years ago I was [No.] 28,” she reflected. “Now, I feel I play very good and I know what I have to do on the court. I feel strong and I can run [for] every ball. I have this style — I run a lot. I don’t do winners — well, I do do winners but not like Serena — like aces and winners. I have different styles, so I put a lot of effort in the match, that’s for sure.”
One thing Niculescu doesn’t put a lot of effort into, however, is social media. The Romanian is one of the few players on the WTA not to be on Twitter or Facebook — and according to her, there’s a perfectly good reason for that.
“I see so many players with their heads in the phone and they are not focused,” she said. “They are in the elevator and they are like that, and I don’t want to — I feel very good like this, to spend time with friends — real friends.”
What the fans in the Porsche Arena can be sure of is that a lot of Niculescu’s efforts will go into tomorrow’s second round match, when she faces Petra Kvitova in the second round of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix — and the slice-expert has already defeated the Czech No. 1 once this year when she faced the lefty during Fed Cup. However, Niculescu herself recognizes that conditions couldn’t be more different tomorrow than they were during the tie in February.
“It was hard court and I had 7,000 people next to me!” she said. “I think she won 6-0, 6-0 [in her first match] so when I take one game, I will be very happy tomorrow — the first game! It’s going to be tough because she has a huge serve and she’s hitting very deep and very strong. I need to serve like today — today, I served very good — If I do that, it’s going to be tough. I have to play my best tennis tomorrow.
“With Petra, she’s Top 10 [for] so many years, and won Wimbledon two times, so I have to be ready. It’s not going to be easy — I will run a lot, I know it! I’ll try to control also the game and not let her do that because she will like to do that. She will put so much pressure on my serve, so I hoping I will serve good. Who knows how tomorrow will be? Today was great but tomorrow you never know.”
While it might be a long way off for her in the second round, the presence of the orange Porsche in the corner of Stuttgart’s Centre Court is hard for most to ignore. When asked what she’d do with the winner’s prize, Niculescu’s answer was — much like many other things about her — a surprise.
“Guess what? I don’t have a driver’s license! Let me win [the Porsche], and let me have this problem!” Niculescu quipped and smiled.
Niculescu and her compatriot’s presence in the WTA’s top tiers certainly haven’t been a problem for tennis in their home nation in recent years, as six of Romania’s eight players in the Top 200 current have career-high rankings in the world’s Top 70. As the eyes of many in Germany this week are focused on whether or not Angelique Kerber‘s Australian Open triumph will create another “tennis boom” in Germany akin to the era of Steffi Graf and Boris Becker, Romanian tennis — as also articulated by Simona Halep earlier on Wednesday — is already feeling the effects of its successful female players.
“[Tennis in Romania] is much better now since Simona was Top 5, Top 10. Tennis now is more known, and I feel I like to be at home all the time — people know us, more Simona, but they know also [Irina] Begu and me, and [Andreea] Mitu and Sorana [Cirstea], so we are very good. We have many players Top 100, so I think it’s good for tennis and also for Fed Cup. Okay, this time it didn’t work, but I’m sure we can do it, we can play a final — I’m sure.”
While they won’t have a chance to compete for a Fed Cup title this year, the Romanian contingent will certainly have its fair share of representation at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Currently ranked No. 31 and Romania’s No. 3, Niculescu is safely within the criteria for qualifying for Rio — and she is thrilled about the possibility of finally ticking that box off her career resume.
“I was supposed to go to London four years ago, but then I broke a bone in the hand, so I couldn’t go,” she said, reflecting on the last Olympic cycle. “I’m very excited — I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I like it in Brazil because won a tournament there so I’m more excited to go there! I like the temperature — I know it’s hot and humid, I love it! All the things are good for me, but it’s still a long time — fingers crossed. I cannot wait for Olympics; maybe I can play with Begu [in] doubles so we have more chance for a medal.”
With Niculescu, one thing remains certain — for as long as she plays tennis, there’s a chance for her surprise you in more ways than one.
Good luck Monica in Stuttgart!I’m sure more surprises will come from Romanian no.2!