MADRID, Spain - When the quarterfinals begin at the Mutua Madrid Open on Thursday, half of the tournament's final eight will be flying the Romanian flag with pride. While it's no surprise to see 2014 finalist Simona Halep in the mix, Romania's alpha is joined by Irina-Camelia Begu, qualifier Patricia Maria Tig, and wildcard Sorana Cirstea in a tournament owned and operated by Romanian legend Ion Tiriac.
It seems the Bucharest Open has come a couple of months early.
"It's a Romanian tournament, I can say," Halep said with a laugh after her strong 6-2, 6-3 win over Timea Bacsinszky. "I feel [at] home here. I feel good always. I have great memories from 2014. I just try to make it best tournament for myself. I try just to enjoy it, because I like it very much."
Halep is the only seed left in the draw and will face Begu on Thursday, ensuring Romania will have a representative in the semifinals. Begu has never been further than the quarterfinal stage at a Premier Mandatory, while Halep made back-to-back quarterfinals in March in Indian Wells and Miami. The two have played three times with Halep winning all six sets, but they have not squared off in over four years.
"I expect a tough match," Halep said. "She plays well on clay. Last year she did quarterfinals here, so [that] means that she likes the court.
"I know her pretty well, since long time ago, but officially we didn't play too many matches. It's a big challenge for me tomorrow."
The big surprises in the draw were Cirstea and Tig. Cirstea has made good on a wildcard into the tournament to make her first Premier Mandatory quarterfinal. The former No.21 has not lost a set in three matches, beating Jelena Jankovic, Danka Kovinic, and Laura Siegemund to join her compatriots among Madrid's Elite Eight.
"I think that's amazing," Cirstea said. "Four girls in the quarterfinals means half of the girls are Romanians, which I think is impressive coming from a country like Romania. I think everyone knows we don't have a system or anything. We were each separate and trying to find a way. I think it's amazing that we are one of the biggest forces now in tennis."
At 26 years old, Cirstea is the oldest of the bunch. "We grew up together," she said. "I played Simona when I was eight years old. "We both had short hair, we were very boyish. Our parents were there [pushed up] against the fence [watching]. It's funny how we all grew up together and now to be all here is really impressive."
"Patricia is younger but I remember her skinny legs when she was 14 when we went to a winter camp together. She was this quiet girl. We've known each other for a very long time. I'm happy to see all of us here and all of us succeeding and having a good run.
"I think it shows if you really have character and if you really want this and you work hard, you can do it."
With her run to the quarterfinals, Cirstea will return to the Top 100 for the first time since January 2015 (read more about her journey back here). Not bad for a player who was ranked No.248 last November and has played ITFs for most of the year. On Thursday she'll play Dominika Cibulkova, who got past Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in three sets.
Last but most assuredly not least is 21-year-old Tig, the most improbable quarterfinalist of them all. Ranked No.134, Tig has racked up an impressive list of wins this week as a qualifier, beating Nicole Gibbs and Maria Sakkari in qualifying, and then Daria Kasatkina, Sloane Stephens, and Madison Keys for the biggest result of her career.
"I'm feeling unbelievably happy," Tig told WTA Insider. "It was a great week for me. I didn't expect this to happen. But since I was working so hard, I think sometimes you don't know when you get rewarded."
Before this week, Tig's best result came last year when she made the final in Baku. Her successful qualifying campaign here put her into the main draw of a Premier Mandatory for the first time in her career and she's on the verge of breaking into the Top 100.
"Actually when I first came here I felt so good being here. I had a feeling that everything was going to be fine. I had a first practice which was going good. I thought, "OK I just have to go on the court and play the best I can for every point and don't expect anything.'"
Tig's straight-set win over Gibbs in the first round of qualifying gave her the belief that she could compete with the top quality field in Madrid. On Thursday she'll find out how her game stacks up against a Slam champion in Sam Stosur, who defeated Carla Suárez Navarro in three sets to make the quarterfinals.
"I mean I was watching her for 10 years playing on TV," Tig said. "I really like her and her game. She's a really top player. She's going to make me do some stupid things but I'm going to try not do them," she said with a laugh.
"I cannot say anything about the match because I'm not expecting anything. I just want to go on court and just play the best I can and whatever is going to happen I will be so happy with it anyway."
All photos courtesy of Getty Images and Mutua Madrid Open.