Magdalena Rybarikova last year, especially at Wimbledon. Carla Suarez Navarro in recent months. Elena Vesnina last year at Indian Wells.
Players in their late 20s or older — whose careers had seemingly eroded to the point that many felt they wouldn’t reclaim certain heights again — managed to climb over obstacles and score significant achievements in the latter stages of their careers. Rybarikova gained the Wimbledon semifinals. Suarez Navarro reached another major quarterfinal in Australia and has continued to post solid results. Vesnina won Indian Wells a year ago, capturing a singles title she will savor for the rest of her career.
As hard-courts switch to clay, is there a WTA player lurking in the shadows who could make a significant step forward — maybe not to the semifinals or final of Roland Garros, but into the quarterfinals?
One could do much worse than suggest Sorana Cirstea.
The Romanian did something in 2017 which she had never previously done in 10 years of playing in the top-tier WTA tournaments on the calendar: She made the quarterfinals of two separate Premier Mandatory events, in Madrid and Beijing. One can very reasonably say that Madrid is an aberrational clay tournament due to the elevation of the city and the unique bounce on the courts of La Caja Magica (The Magic Box, where the tournament is held), but it remains that formidable players win and have won there. Simona Halep won there last year and came within a whisker of winning Roland Garros a month later. In Beijing at the China Open, Cirstea showed she could go deep into a Premier Mandatory event a second time in a season by beating Karolina Pliskova in the round of 16. Cirstea lost to Jelena Ostapenko in the quarters, but she registered the kind of win which can give a career a boost.
Currently age 27, Cirstea has not made a huge splash in 2018. She lost to Hsieh Su-wei in her first match at the Miami Open. She lost to Venus Williams in her second match in Indian Wells. She keeps bumping into a low ceiling, but her comparative successes are still recent enough that as she returns to clay, she might be able to reclaim what lifted her to a higher place in 2017.
Winning Roland Garros or even a Premier Mandatory or Premier 5 title is not a realistic goal for a player who so rarely advances deep into major or Premier-level events. However, the idea that Cirstea could cause mayhem in the round of 64 or 32 at upcoming clay tournaments of significance this spring is not unfounded. It might not be the strongest idea ever put forth, but after 2017, Cirstea can say to herself that she laid a foundation and a template last year.
Now is her time to build on it.