MADRID, Spain - With a renewed perspective on her career, Sorana Cirstea is ready to get back to work. The 26-year-old reached a career-high No.21 in 2013 thanks to her run to the final of the Rogers Cup that year, but a debilitating shoulder injury a year later sent her results into a downward spiral.
Ranked as low as No.248 in 2015, Cirstea has slowly built her ranking back up by grinding away on the ITF Circuit. In January she reached back-to-back Challenger finals in Brazil, winning a 25K in Bertioga, and made her first WTA semifinal in three years at the Rio Open.
WTA Insider sat down with Cirstea after that win to talk about her tough journey back from injury and why she's relishing the challenge of getting herself back on the regular tour.
WTA Insider: Congratulations. You must be feeling pretty good.
Cirstea: I'm very happy to be back at this type of tournament, and I'm happy to start with a win. I see this as a new career for me coming after the shoulder injury. Every match is important.
WTA Insider: How is the shoulder, in general? Are you 100% back?
Cirstea: My problem is always going to be there, so now it's a matter of being able to manage it and to do my daily exercises and keep the shoulder [strong] and doing the rehab well.
I need to be careful because my problem is going to be there for the rest of my career. Now I've gotten used to it, but it's very important how I do the things. Now I think I know how to manage it; I've changed my serve, and that puts less pressure on my shoulder, and so far things are well. I started the year playing ITF 25Ks in Brazil, and now I do think I'm on the right track.
WTA Insider: Could you give more details on the shoulder injury?
Cirstea: My shoulder is too flexible; it was luxating. That's the main issue, but then I have some impingement and problems with the biceps and deltoids. Compensation injuries. A whole world of problems there, but as I said, I found a good way to do my daily exercises and I do a good rehab every day. Of course, it takes a lot of time. But I'm happy because it's working, and for me to be able to be back on the court and actually enjoy playing pain-free. It's amazing.
WTA Insider: What have you changed in your service motion to take some of the stress away?
Cirstea: I used to have a normal, full extension, and now I just do the abbreviated. For me, the pain was when I was going all the way up. We tried that and it was actually quite good from the beginning, but of course, you need repetition, rhythm and coordination.
So far, it's going ok and I studied a lot of abbreviated serves. I was looking at Andy Roddick's, and he had a really good serve! But it was interesting because I started to be more careful, to watch a little bit more and understand tennis from a different perspective. I think all of this has helped me.
WTA Insider: Do you think you're a different player now, than before?
Cirstea: Definitely. I actually told my coach the other day, 'If I'd had this head two or three years ago, I'd be in a different place right now,' but I think it's about growing up and maturing, and having this team I have right now, I'm very happy. We communicate very well.
The most important thing for me is how I see tennis right now: I'm lucky to be here, and I appreciate it. I'm not taking anything for granted anymore, because I remember when I was staying at home on my couch watching the matches. It's nice, so I want to enjoy every single day because it goes very quickly.
WTA Insider: Can you enjoy it when you're grinding on the ITF Circuit?
Cirstea: I think my coach was key in my comeback because I actually started with him in the summer. My shoulder was still not very good so we couldn't do a lot, but since November it's been steady and we did a good off-season.
We went to Brazil, and he told me, 'You know what, Sorana? I appreciate you, because you are trying to come back and fighting through this. You could have put the racquet away and started whatever you wanted. But the fact that you are here, struggling, playing girls who are 17, 18 years old. For me it's hat's off. You should see it this way, as a challenge.'
How far can I go? Now it's a challenge with myself, if I can get back up there again and how far I can go. I'm seeing it from a different perspective.
WTA Insider: So many players who've come back have a different perspective on things, and with maturity, a lot of older players will say, 'When I was younger, I took things for granted.' When you look back on your first career, what does taking it for granted look like?
Cirstea: I think for me, I started very young. At 17, I was already in the Top 100, so I got in very quickly into this. I don't think I was mature enough, and maybe I needed my parents a little bit more. They were busy, so they couldn't travel that much, and I needed support in that time because you're basically all alone in the world with your coach or team. I think I didn't really know how to communicate.
For example, after a loss, I wasn't able to handle it. Those were very tough; I would lose and two-three days later, I was still sad about that match and suddenly the next tournament was coming and I wasn't ready. It was different, but it's about maturing and that's a tough side that people don't see. When you come to the tour so young, you really need stability from your family and to have the right people around you, that can guide you on the right path and keep you there.
Of course at 17, 18, I was 30 in the world and wondering, 'Why aren't I Top 10?' I think this is taking things for granted instead of saying, 'I'm 18, I'm No.30 in the world, let's work to get better.' I think that's life; unfortunately you can't have it all.
WTA Insider: Why is it so hard to have that perspective when you're young?
Cirstea: People don't teach you how to handle losses. As a junior, I was always winning, but you get to the point where you're playing professionals, and this is the top, this is the end. In juniors, I was really good at 14, I go to 16. I was really good at 16, you go to 18, so it's always another level. Now you're here and the first year is really good because you're young and have adrenaline. But then people start to learn your game, and then it's very important to actually have your feet on the ground.
It's hard because I think, 'Why did I stress so much?' But when you're there in the point, losing a match seems like the end of the world and you put so much pressure on yourself. It's a tough sport, mentally, so that's why I do believe it's important to have that mental support at a young age.
WTA Insider: When you sit down with your team, what are you goals for the year?
Cirstea: Now I'm not so focused on the ranking, because I think ranking is a consequence of the things you do. I'm not so desperate as I was before; if I would practice well, I wanted the result to come straight away. Now I know that if I'm doing things right, the results will come sooner or later.
I think I have a good schedule with training, physical, rehabbing, strengthening. I think I found a right way to do things that for me, it's good because it keeps my mind busy and I'm working all day. I put my head down, I stay there, and for me it works. It's a good way, and like I said, the main thing is training and doing the right things. Before, it didn't matter if I lost a match, no matter how I played. Now, if I can take something positive out of the match, it's a step forward, even if I lost.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images and Mutua Madrid Open.