BUCHAREST, Romania - Alexandra Dulgheru is climbing a mountain. Now she’s hiking in a cave. Yesterday she was visiting a remote monastery, today she’s training in a gym, and tomorrow she’ll be chatting in a commentary booth.
It’s hard to keep up with the 30-year-old Romanian multi-hyphenate, known by her peers to be one of the most creative players on tour: at the moment, she’s a tennis player, a painter, a mixed-media artist and sometimes a TV commentator.
Once ranked inside the WTA’s Top 30 and with two career WTA titles, Dulgheru is also currently navigating the difficult rehab process after undergoing her fourth knee surgery - but she’s determined to make the most of her time off.
Catching up with wtatennis.com from somewhere deep in Transylvania, Dulgheru opened up on her long struggle with knee injury and the way art has become ‘a total therapy’ during the toughest moments of her career - as well as the simple delight of spending the night in a remote Romanian monastery with no cell phone connection.
Dulgheru had played just five tournaments in 2019 when she felt a familiar sensation: sharp pain in her left knee.
Having already undergone three surgeries throughout her career to treat the same joint - including one in November of 2018 that kept her out of this year’s Australian Open - the Romanian made the difficult decision to stop her season in April after Istanbul, withdraw from Roland Garros and go under the knife again - hopefully for the last time.
“It’s been a difficult injury, it’s not easy,” Dulgheru said in a phone interview. “But recovery-wise, it’s been going very well. I mean, I’m there 100% trying to come back and building my body up.
“There were moments that I felt better and I tried to push a bit more, then let’s say the following day my knee got swollen… I need to give time to this rehab, I can’t rush things.”
Rather than allowing herself to sink into self-doubt, Dulgheru used the time off to do something she’s always wanted: after getting the okay from her doctors to resume training and physical activity, she embarked on a trip to explore her home country of Romania.
“There are so many places in Romania that I haven’t visited,” Dulgheru said with an audible grin. “I mean, I visited the whole world but not my own country.
“I knew Romania has a lot of good history, a lot of beautiful, outstanding scenery. But now seeing them - and it’s only a small part of all of it! - it’s absolutely amazing.”
With her parents and family in tow, Dulgheru spent over a week criss-crossing the country, mostly in the Transylvania region, visiting a salt mine-turned-amusement park, hiking in the mountains, carefully winding through Transfagarasan’s famous hairpin turns, and more.
Her favorite experience by far has been spending the night in a remote monastery deep in the mountains - no cell phone signal, no distractions, just nature and sacred silence.
“The energy in a monastery is different,” she gushed. “It’s just you, yourself, it’s like you feel protected. I can’t describe it, it’s… you feel like all the bad vibes and the electronics and everything that sucks up your energy, those useless things that you’re into all day - here, it’s just you and nature.
“There’s one monastery where I didn’t even have signal. So it’s just you and nature. When you finally pick your head up and see everything around you, you realize what the real meaning of life is.”
For the 30-year-old, the experience was ‘like a therapy’ - a phrase that pops up a lot during conversations with Dulgheru.
She was born in Bucharest, Romania to a family of jetsetters - her father, Dumitru is an airline pilot and her mother Doina an airline coordinator - and showed an aptitude for tennis from an early age. She first picked up a racquet at the age of four, growing up hitting at courts near her house and showing lots of early promise.
At the same time, another talent was emerging.
“Art has been my passion since I was really young… At the beginning my drawings were normal, nothing special. But then slowly, I kind of realized that I could really draw with exact accuracy, you know. And then I felt it in myself, like a passion. I liked it.”
Completely self-taught as an artist, Dulgheru’s quick sketches and childhood doodles became a growing collection of elaborate artistic pieces across various mediums.
“I didn’t actually follow any school, although I wanted to,” she admitted. “Because I’m pretty sure if I go to an art school, I’m going to learn some techniques. But no, everything is just my talent, my hand-eye coordination.
“I do a bit of everything. I’ve painted on papyrus, you know, the Egyptian paper. I painted on cloth, I painted on normal paper, I sketch. Anything that means drawing I can do, even on a wall.”
Her masterpiece, which hangs framed in her bedroom, is an elaborate and colorful garden scene, done in oils over the course of a year back in 2012 - coincidentally, during another long injury layoff following her first surgery on the left knee.
“It took me one year to do it, because I did it with time. I only did it on Sundays for a few hours… It took me a while, but it was worth it because it was kind of a therapy.”
Having never worked with oils on this scale before, and having no formal artistic training, Dulgheru recalled the unique process for teaching herself how to paint: checking out other paintings in shops or galleries, and just getting up really, really close.
“I was just getting really close to the painting to see how the artist used the brushes and put the paints on, how thick it was,” she said with a laugh. “And so I could realize how they did it but obviously I didn’t have the techniques, so I think I consumed four, five or six big tubes of these colors.”
Like many artists before her, Dulgheru has found that she is at her most creative during her lowest moments: her colorful magnum opus came during the midst of her first major surgery and recovery in 2012, and she’s already produced a flurry of sketches and ideas during her most recent layoff.
She chalks it up to having more down time to work on her art, but also admits that it’s become a vital escape to take her mind off of her physical setbacks.
“For me, when I’m not playing tennis, to do this is also challenging my other side as well,” she said. “The side that also yearns for attention, and it’s part of me.
“So I kind of complete myself when I do that too. I know I’m not just a tennis player, I can do this and that and that. That’s what makes me happy when I draw, and it’s like a total therapy.
“It has always been my thing, my hobby,” she added. “And I used it a lot playing tennis as a therapy. I always liked to do different things, because, you know, sometimes as a tennis player people consider you only a tennis player. But me, I have always had inclination to art. To me, it’s not only tennis.”
Gearing up to hit the tennis courts after her fourth career knee surgery, Dulgheru will soon put aside the sketchbooks and charcoals to focus on her recovery in earnest.
The former two-time Warsaw champion and Kuala Lumpur finalist explained that her knee problems have been ongoing for most of her tennis career, dating back to a childhood of ‘too much work’ on the court without enough recovery in between.
“I had a sensitivity with this knee,” she said. “It’s been also the result of, like, too much work in childhood with a different kind of mindset… I mean, when I was younger in Eastern Europe, the mentality was a lot of hard work. Coaches, trainers, push you a lot and the recovery wasn’t in high standards. I mean, back then no one had the education to know that you needed recovery as much as you needed the work done.
“So that’s what happened. I pushed too much with too little recovery, and even when I won Warsaw [in 2009], by that point, I had big problems in my knee already.”
After a decade of fighting the same injury, Dulgheru is honest with herself about the long road back to match fitness - and how much time she’ll have left to play tennis professionally.
When she speaks, Dulgheru is already overflowing with plans for the future: she’d like to go to art school for a few months and learn proper techniques, she’s been doing occasional stints in the commentary booth for Romanian sports network Digi Sport which she’d love to continue in the future, she’d love to travel and see more of Romania.
But even still, nothing comes before tennis.
“Definitely it hasn’t been the best career so far,” she readily admits. “I mean, I love playing tennis a lot - because it’s also something creative, you know? You’re creating. And my game is a bit creative as well.
“I felt like it was something I could build up with every match, every tournament. Even though there are tough moments, sometimes you don’t like playing or you’re injured, you still want to keep going… Even though now I’ve had four surgeries, every time I’m coming back and trying to do the best that I could.
“I think that the passion for it really helped me to get through all of this with the injuries. I mean normally, in my situation with all these troubles, I could have quit a long time ago. But I didn’t want to.”
Her goal, she explained, was to come back to the tennis courts by the end of the year or the start of the 2020 season and work to build up her ranking (she’s currently outside the WTA’s Top 800).
What keeps her going - aside from a passion to create art on and off the court - is the belief that she can come back better than before. After all, she’s done it before: following her 2012 surgery, she fell out of the WTA’s Top 200 but worked her way back to form. By 2014, she was back in the Top 100 and a year later, she reached her third career WTA final at Kuala Lumpur.
“Every time coming back, I proved myself that I could do it,” Dulgheru said. “I could even be better than I was, even though only for a short while. And that was the motivation that kept me going after every injury. And right now, it’s hopefully going to be my last important injury.
“I mean, I’m going to try again like last time to really give it a shot. To play for a few more years, to end this nicely. And then, I’m going to see what I’m going to do. That’s kind of my plan.”