Elena-Gabriela Ruse has had an unexpected double surprise at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, where she reached the main draw in singles as a lucky loser and finished the day with two wins. The No.57 Romanian began the day with a 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 win over Shelby Rogers and finished with a 6-0, 6-2 win in doubles, partnering with Marta Kostyuk.
Now Ruse, 24, will prepare for the toughest test in women's tennis right: a showdown with World No.1 Iga Swiatek on Wednesday.
"[Swiatek] is physically very good," Ruse said. "She's running so well. She has such nice footwork and she's different. She's a different player. Most of the women are playing very flat, but she's mixing it up very well. I need to learn a lot of stuff from Iga."
The two played four years ago at an ITF W60 in Montreux. Swiatek won 2-6, 6-1, 6-2 in the quarterfinals on her way to the title.
"I don't have any expectations," Ruse said. "We are completely different right now. We changed a lot. She's No.1 right now. I will try to play relaxed, to do my game, and let's see. She's an amazing player. So good."
Here are five things to know about the rising Romanian:
1. She chose tennis over singing
Ruse started playing tennis when she was 4 years old. Her father played soccer and her mother was a gymnast. Ruse kept herself occupied with a variety of activities, but when she was 13 years old, she committed her sole focus to tennis.
"At the end, it was singing or tennis," Ruse said. "I was a very, very, very good singer. My voice was like an opera voice.
"My mom asked me what do you want to do with your life because you do so many things and you don't have time for anything. So you have to choose between singing and tennis.
"I said, 'Look, Mom, I cannot stay three hours on the chair and sing.' So I chose tennis."
2. Her idol is ... Simona Halep
No surprise here. But Ruse laughed when discussing her 0-3 record against Halep.
"Simona was my idol -- that's why she beats me so bad!" Ruse said." It's hard to play against your idol. I will beat her once. That's why I'm practicing and fighting. I need to beat my idol.
"She's a great person and we have a good relationship. I learned so many things from Simo. She beat most of the legends."
But Ruse acknowledged that playing in the shadow of Romania's standard-bearer isn't always easy. Halep has provided the template and the belief, but along with it, expectations.
"Everybody expects you to be No.1 in the world," Ruse said. "I'm trying to do my best. It doesn't matter. I'm 57 in the world right now. You have to respect me. It's not an easy job."
3. Her rise was sparked by family tragedy
Ruse had a breakthrough last summer on clay. Ranked No.198, Ruse plowed through the draw as a qualifier in Hamburg to win her first title. She went on to make the final in Palermo straight away. In total, Ruse won 12 consecutive matches during that stretch, tallying wins over quality opposition like Danielle Collins, Jil Teichmann, Dayana Yastremska and Andrea Petkovic.
Ruse was coming off injuries and low in confidence. She had been desperate to play as many tournaments as possible to gain some consistency. But right before Hamburg, she received news that a family member had died.
"I booked the tickets and I was going to come back to Romania, but for the first time in my life I said I'm going to play Hamburg," Ruse said. "I will cry. I will be sad. But I have to do my job and live my life. I cannot stop all the time when something happens to someone else. I'm a girl with a big heart and I care about the people around me and sometimes it's not good for me."
"I didn't expect to win. I didn't believe. But somehow I did it. And then I felt like I'm playing good. But I never thought about winning the tournament in that moment."
True to word, Ruse's commitment to chasing consistency, making the final in Palermo meant more to her than winning Hamburg.
"Everybody in Romania said like, 'Gabi, she's playing really good, but she doesn't have consistency,'" Ruse said. "So for me, it was unbelievable to play the final in Palermo because I was like, 'Look, I work so hard and I have the consistency now.'"
4. She's thriving with a lot of structure and a little bit of luck
Ruse is not short on ambition, but she struggled with self-belief when she was younger. She was a national champion in Romania as a junior, made the 2014 Wimbledon girls' semifinal and peaked at No.7 on the ITF Junior Circuit. But her transition to the pro level was marred by injuries and a lack of guidance.
"I was all the time very close to being Top 100 and beating very good players because I played a lot of times with the Top 20 players when I was 170," Ruse said. "But I never won the matches because I didn't believe in myself. I was all the time thinking about what the people said about me, and they were all the time like, 'Oh, you can be Top 100 easy.'
"But no one told me what to do or stayed with me in the team. When I was 18 or 19 years old, I was traveling for two years without a coach. I was traveling with the ITF Team."
Before the pandemic hit, Ruse hired veteran coach Julian Vespan, former coach to Alisa Kleybanova. After her run through the clay last summer, she finally broke the Top 100 in September. But after chasing that milestone for years, the 24-year-old felt numb.
"To be honest, I was not that happy because I expect to be here," Ruse said. "I feel like my level is there. I was happy, of course, because I beat a lot of good players, but I was working so much for this level.
"I think I will be Top 10. I know that. I feel that. So for me, it's nothing special."
5. She earned her first Top 10 win in February
In January, Ruse endured yet another injury setback. In a spate of bad luck, she broke a ligament in her wrist returning a serve in practice at the Australian Open.
But when she returned for her first match back at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Ruse proceeded to knock Paula Badosa out in the first round for her first win against a Top 10 player.
"It's all the time up and down and sometimes you just need some luck," Ruse said. "But I'm a big fighter. I don't want to give up."