DOHA, Qatar - Late-career resurgences aren't a new a concept on the WTA Tour, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more unlikely success story than 29-year-old Mihaela Buzarnescu. In just nine months, the Romanian has gone from being ranked outside the Top 500 to making her Top 40 debut next week. She has qualified for her first Slam main draw (US Open), made her first WTA final (Hobart), and tallied her first Top 10 win (Ostapenko) in her first Premier 5 main draw appearance (Doha). That's a lot of "firsts" for a 29-year-old Ph.D. student.
"Maybe I should start a notebook to keep track of these things," Buzarnescu told WTA Insider after her win over Jelena Ostapenko at the Qatar Total Open. "When you don't give up, it's coming."
Just over a year ago, the Romanian began 2017 ranked outside the Top 500, having had a promising young career derailed by a flurry of injuries that knocked her off the tour and led her to pursue her Ph.D in sports science at the National University of Physical Education and Sport in Bucharest as she waited for her body to heal.
And then, suddenly, her body did heal. Playing in team matches for Leimonias in Holland last summer, Buzarnescu suddenly felt no pain in her knee. Then, she couldn't stop winning matches. Ranked No.374 last June, Buzarnescu ran off a streak of 20 consecutive match wins on the ITF level, winning events in Hungary, Turkey, Spain, and Germany. By July she had matched her career-high ranking of No.141, which she first hit in 2012.
The milestones kept coming for Buzarnescu. She qualified for her first Slam main draw at the US Open and posted her best WTA result in the fall, making the semifinals of Linz as a qualifier. Thanks to continued to success on the ITF circuit - Buzarnescu won a total of seven ITF events in 2017 - the Romanian cracked the Top 100 for the first time in her career and finished at a career-high No.72.
So far in 2018, Buzarnescu has proven her surge shows no signs of stopping. She made her first WTA final at the Hobart International and will crack the Top 40 for the first time after scoring the first Top 10 win of her career over Jelena Ostapenko at the Qatar Total Open.
WTA Insider caught up with Buzarnescu to discuss her nine-month rankings rise, how she almost thought her career was over, and what all this late success means to her now.
WTA Insider: How does this all feel for you, this rise up the rankings that's happened during this late stage of your career?
Buzarnescu: It's something new that I always dreamed about since I was young. Since I started to play tennis my dad always used to say, 'You hit once with a forehand, then once with a backhand, and everything will be ok for you.' Easy to say, hard to do. So for me, after all my injuries, it's really a dream come true to get a chance to be at this level and play high-level matches.
WTA Insider: When you were able to restart your career, was this your goal? To reach new heights, to crack the Top 100, the Top 50, the Top 40 for the first time?
Buzarnescu: When I came back last year, at the beginning I didn't have any clue any of this would happen. I still had pain in my knees at the beginning of the year. I was playing not so well. I came here and I won one round of qualies, then I took five weeks off. I played some ITFs and I wasn't playing good. I was just thinking, will I be able to play 25Ks in Italy at the end of the year or not? I was still thinking if I would be able to play or not because the pain was there.
Then in June, I started to play again, after playing some team matches in Holland, and all of a sudden I didn't have any pain in my knee. I was trying to be more relaxed. I got help from my team who supported me. My dad was always there, my mom, my boyfriend, and I had some friends who didn't know me so well and they were really into helping me. This helped me the most. Trusting them and just playing more relaxed.
WTA Insider: Let's go back to the beginning. How did you come to start playing tennis?
Buzarnescu: My father was playing with my mom. That's how they met. In their free time they were playing tennis. So I was there with them. I was 2 or 3 years old and I took the racquet and I liked it. That's how I started to play. Then my father was feeding me balls and I started to play more often. My dad has always been my main coach. I have a second coach now that collaborates and helps me a lot.
WTA Insider: What did you like about tennis?
Buzarnescu: It's so competitive and it's always you against the other player. I liked the challenge, the fact that it's you or her. It's not a team. You can't depend on someone else. It's either you or her. I like it because I'm a fighter, even if I complain on court or I'm saying stuff, I always try until the very end.
WTA Insider: At what point did you think you might be able to play professionally?
Buzarnescu: I think it was when I was eight. I won a couple of national tournaments in Romania and my dad said, ok, let's talk. Do you want to do this like a professional or just as a hobby? I said I want to play. So he said we have to practice harder and play more. I said of course. So they were taking me from the school and going to practice every day and playing tournaments.
WTA Insider: Who did you idolize when you were growing up?
Buzarnescu: I was watching Sampras from when I was small. He was my idol. And Monica Seles. I was watching all the time and crying and sweating because I wanted Sampras to win everything. And then Venus. I liked her so much when she started to play. She was so good.
WTA Insider: So talk me through the injury issues you've faced in your career.
Buzarnescu: First was when I was 18. I was already No.4 in juniors and I was around Top 240 in the WTA. I stopped because of my shoulder for six months and I lost all my sponsors. Nobody believed in me anymore.
I started again when I was 19 and it was not so good. I was going alone to the tournaments because it's not easy. On the ITFs you have to pay for everything. Then in 2011 and 2012 I was around 140. It was ok but then my knee injury came. It took me out for two years. I started back and I went back to the Top 200 and then the knee came back.
WTA Insider: This is the same knee injury or different knee injuries?
Buzarnescu: It's the same knee injury. I had two surgeries and I did it for nothing. Nothing worked. The doctors had no clue. I did everything. I went to Nadal's doctor, I saw a doctor in Switzerland, they were so confused about the pain. I still had pain after the surgeries and I was like there's no way I'm going o play tennis again. It was horrible. I was 24 and never got to go higher than No.140.
I felt my tennis was done. I started doing a Ph.D. because I had to do something. I thought maybe I'll have a job at a university afterwards. I was studying at the Sports University in Romania and my specialization was tennis, my masters was in sports management, and my Ph.D. was in sports science. Everything was in sports.
WTA Insider: Pursuing a Ph.D. is a pretty rare choice for a tennis player.
Buzarnescu: I just thought I had to keep my time busy with something otherwise I will go crazy thinking about how I can't play tournaments. And then hopefully I could get a job if I couldn't play. I was a tennis player. What could I do? Maybe I could be a tennis coach, but maybe something else.
It was always very confused in my mind because I was never sure what I wanted to do. But I was like ok, I have to do it and then see. Maybe I'll play again, maybe I won't, but I always thought I had no chance. Where should I go? In Romania? Abroad? Where should I get a job? It was always foggy.
I gave myself another chance to start back. It was good because I had those team matches in Holland and it was so weird. The pain just went away. I went to play tournaments after and I actually had good confidence because the team matches there were very difficult. It's a very high level in Holland. I played better and better. I just played more relaxed.
WTA Insider: Now that you're a regular at WTA tournaments, how have you found the experience? Has anything surprised you?
Buzarnescu: It's really nice. Everything is so different from the ITF tournaments. They treat you so well, but at the same time, fewer players talk to you. Everyone has their own team and nobody talks. At the ITFs there's more socialization.
But I've been dreaming about this since I was small. I really hope to be able to stay more in these kinds of tournaments and play against the top players. That's how you improve your level.
WTA Insider: How close are you to your maximum?
Buzarnescu: You always have something more to give. I don't think I'm at my maximum level. I think I can do more but you have to work for that. I just hope staying more at this level will help me more and more.
WTA Insider: Is it lonely on tour?
Buzarnescu: I have a team with me, but when you're alone it's dead. You cannot be alone at tournaments. I went alone to Linz last year and my friend she said I'm just going to come and you should put me in as your coach. I played really well and made semifinals. No one is talking there. It's not that they're not talking to me, they're not talking to anybody. It's surprising a little bit. It's too competitive.
WTA Insider: What's the most fun you have on court?
Buzarnescu: Winning matches. It gives you a great feeling. It gives you amazing vibes inside. It's something you really fight for. Winning tournaments, it's like a job. When your boss is very happy that you did something well. We are our own bosses so we're happy with ourselves. This is the best feeling.
I'm never so proud of myself. I don't want to think, so I take every match as it is. I never expect myself to do something. I don't want to push this to myself that I have to do something at every tournament. For me every tournament I'm proud of myself. Being in finals, being close to the last rounds of a tournament, it's for me that's an achievement.
WTA Insider: So what are your goals looking ahead?
Buzarnescu: I don't want to think about it. I would like to be able to defend my points and get my ranking as high as possible. I would love to be seeded at a Grand Slam. That would be really nice. I just want to be healthy first and play as many tournaments as possible and stay at this level.
I was looking at the list at the beginning of the year and I was like, oh no chance to play Stuttgart. My coaches said I have a chance but I think you have to be Top 30. Maybe now there's a chance. It would be nice.