It was exactly 50 weeks ago that I went to a women’s ITF $60,000 tournament in Hodmezovasarhely – try to pronounce that three times – after the French Open ended. The small town in Hungary was about a two-hour drive south of Budapest. Ana Bogdan and Danka Kovinic were the top two seeds and the field also included Patty Schnyder of Switzerland, whose comeback attempt after four years (2011-2015) of retirement was shifting to higher gear.
Facing Schnyder in the first round was an unseeded player from Romania named Mihaela Buzarnescu. She was ranked No. 374 in the WTA at that time. She had never entered the top 100 prior to that point in her professional career, which began back in 2004. It did not help either that she had battled injuries throughout her years on the tour.
Her latest physical woes involved her left knee on which she had two operations, one year apart, that kept her off competition through large chunks of time during the 2014-2016 period. She was only able to enter the main draw of the Hodmezovasarhely tournament thanks to the Special Ranking rule that took into account her long-term absence due to injury.
I watched Buzarnescu dominate Schnyder in that first-round match. She won 6-3 6-1, and trust me, it looked even more lopsided than the score indicated. That was just the beginning. Buzarnescu lost only one set on her way to the finals, where she also routed the second-seeded Kovinic, 6-2 6-1, to win the title.
There was no stopping her for the remainder of the year. She went on to amass six more ITF titles and skyrocketed up the WTA rankings, ending the year at No. 57. Her rise continued this year — she reached the finals of two WTA events (Hobart on hardcourt, Prague on clay), and arrived at Roland Garros ranked No. 33.
It’s about time that people familiarize themselves with her. If you need to know why, look no further than this week at Roland Garros.
Fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina, Buzarnescu’s victim on Friday, may have fallen into that trap herself.
She admitted after the match that she was not familiar with her: “I didn’t know much about her because she raised really quickly. I watched little bit video of her playing, so I knew little bit what to expect.”
She also gave her opponent credit more than once, saying that she was playing “great tennis” and “really, really, on the ball.”
Svitolina also noted that she “couldn’t find her rhythm” a couple of times. I would argue that Buzarnescu would not let her find it. But before I get into the details of the match, let’s remember what makes Svitolina such a tough player.
The 23-year-old Ukrainian is a solid baseliner with sound technique on both sides. She possesses a quick first step that helps her chase and retrieve well-struck balls by her opponents. Her forehand has more variety in terms of the amount of spin she can add to the ball, while her backhand is flatter, more of a drive shot. She does not have one big weapon, so to speak, but she has the ability to accelerate the ball on both wings. One shot that lags behind the overall quality of her game is her second serve. It does not have much pace and can sometimes land short in the box.
That second serve was one part of the reason for Buzarnescu’s 6-3 7-5 win over her, but let me emphasize, only one part.
The reality: Buzarnescu not only suffocated Svitolina on her second serves with aggressive returns, but also crushed any shot she could hit on or inside the baseline, thus stifling any game plan Svitolina may have concocted prior to the match with the intention of controlling the rallies.
Buzarnescu confirmed that point in her post-match press conference, but added that is her usual style of play:
“I only wanted to be aggressive and wait for the good shots and just go for it, play angles and move on, move on in the court. Because, otherwise, she would just take advantage of every short ball that I was hitting. […] I was just trying to play the same as before and not trying to change.”
That, she did.
When you are a high-IQ** player riding on a mountain of confidence, and you possess a plethora of skills to embellish your shotmaking abilities, turning thoughts into actions becomes as easy spreading warm butter on a soft baguette.
** Buzarnescu, for the record, speaks four languages (Romanian, English, French, and Spanish) fluently and has a Ph.D. in Sports Science – but does not care to be called “Doctor,” she affirmed.
Let’s start with her returns on Svitolina’s second serves. Time after time, Buzarnescu stepped inside the baseline and pounded returns for winners (one example: 3-2, second set, the 15-15 point). If she did not get the winner, she would stretch Svitolina off the court so far that on the next shot, she would either hit the winner to the open court or finish the point at the net by taking the floater in the air (see the first point of the 5-3 game in the first set, and the first point of the 5-4 game in the second set, for an example of each).
Let’s continue with her 1-2 punches on her own service games. I would venture to say that Buzarnescu gave a clinic on how to properly execute the winner after a first serve that gives you the advantage off the gate. She would serve, sense that Svitolina was going to struggle to return it, and move immediately up to the baseline, all within a second. Once her expectations were confirmed and the return would land short, she would move another step or two inside the court and unload her winner. Her first one came at 3-2 in the first set, in the 0-15 point.
She had two more of those in that game alone and finish with 11 clean 1-2-punch winners (more than one clean winner on 1-2 punches per serving game). That is not counting the slew of other 1-2 punches where Svitolina barely got the second shot back to avoid the clean winner, but still had to helplessly watch as Buzarnescu pounded the winner on the next one or forced her to scramble more.
Mihaela’s well-oiled machine malfunctioned twice, the first instance coming in the third game of the second set on her service game. She made three forehand unforced errors and a double fault in that game to lose her serve and fall behind 1-2. But Svitolina could not confirm the break and lost her serve in a contested game with five deuces. Svitolina did, by then, firmly sink her teeth into the match, and the rest of the set featured some high-quality points.
Svitolina began to do a better job of getting her returns deep and was engaging Buzarnescu in longer rallies. She also attempted a drop shot or two to change pace, but she could not seem to get the upper hand, until the Buzarnescu machine experienced its second – and last – malfunction.
Following a 4-4 game that featured a double fault and three unforced errors by Buzarnescu on her serve – and ending on a blown overhead –Svitolina got a chance to finish the second set on her serve.
That 5-4 game had a bit of everything. By that time, Svitolina was throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Buzarnescu and managed to somewhat halt the Romanian’s assault.
Buzarnescu stuck to her guns. She went after Svitolina’s second serve again and finished the point with a forehand volley to go up 0-15. In the 30-30 point, Svitolina was able to pin Buzarnescu back to the baseline for a few shots – a situation that *should* favor her. Yet, it was still Elina who cracked first and missed the forehand in the net, because she felt forced to take risks during rallies to stop Buzarnescu from stepping inside the baseline. Allow me to elaborate on that for a paragraph.
Rallying amid the threat of having a winner shoved down your throat at any time is a bit like trying to complete a task in under 60 seconds with someone standing next to you and constantly reminding you how many seconds you have left. You will mess up even if the task were something you have done many times before under 60 seconds. Considering how many winners and hard shots to the corners Buzarnescu had produced up to that point, every shot she hit in that rally must have felt to Svitolina like that person standing on your side and nagging you about how many seconds you have left. Under that type of stress, you will mess up. That is comparatively what happened to Svitolina when she slammed what appeared to be a routine forehand into the net. It was a direct result of trying to put more power into her shots to keep Buzarnescu behind the baseline.
There is nevertheless a reason why Svitolina is ranked No. 4 in the world. She was able to get past the disappointment of that forehand error and come up with two well-placed first serves in a row to grab the next two points and earn a set-point opportunity.
She hit another fine serve that landed on the outside corner of the service box and got the return she wanted from Buzarnescu. It was short, inside the service box, one that Svitolina would probably put away 9 out of 10 times.
Then disaster struck.
I am not sure what took place inside Svitolina’s head at that moment. First of all, she did not move forward quick enough, and when she did finally move, she ended up being off-balance and trying a bizarre-looking drop shot that you could easily tell was a last-second decision.
How disastrous was it? The drop-shot attempt literally “dropped” at the bottom of the net! It is the kind of an error that would make any skilled player wish they could instantly beam away and disappear.
Unfortunately for Elina, it came on a set point, and unfortunately for her, she never recovered from it.
The match ended two games later on two backhand unforced errors in succession by Elina, knocking her out of yet another major in which she must have surely fancied her chances to reach the semifinals for the first time in her career.
I would, however, advise any reader to avoid putting too much focus on the set point missed by Svitolina, because that would be an injustice to how much Buzarnescu deserved to win this match. She was the proactive player dictating rallies and going for her shots (31 winners total), and ultimately, the better overall performer on the court.
I will finish with one last example of how clutch Buzarnescu was. She served four aces in the match, three of them on game points in the first set and the other at deuce, 2-2 in the second, a game in which she had just saved four break points. That ace gave her her first game point, enough for a hold.
Not bad for a player who, in the juniors, was considered in the same caliber as Caroline Wozniacki, Vika Azarenka, and Aga Radwanska, the ones she called “my generation” in her post-match talk. That was 12 years ago when she was a top-five junior in the world.
Those others moved on, but Mihaela got stuck, largely because she immediately had to deal with a shoulder injury that sidelined her for six months:
“So that’s when I kind of lost some sponsors that I had. And when I came back, it was not so easy with the coming. And then, of course I didn’t have the same results as before. And it was not easy to continue, because I just went to 114 in 2011 and 2012 when I stopped. So, yeah, it was really tough time.”
The struggle lasted for about a dozen years. Now, at 30 years old, she finds herself in the fourth round of a major, along with other big names and nothing seems to be out of reach: “I’m really, really happy that I was able not to give up.”
She will not need to prepare for that ITF tournament in Hodmezovasarhely that takes place in less than two weeks. This is not 2017 and ITF tournaments are no longer on her agenda.
Instead, Buzarnescu has to prepare for a match against Madison Keys in the fourth round of a major.
Image source -Jimmie 48