Fresh outlook helps Cirstea regain her groove

 - Chris Oddo

Romanian playing with renewed passion at Roland-Garros following first title in 13 years

Sorana Cirstea, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Clément Mahoudeau/FFT

When the clay season began, all Sorana Cirstea could think was: not again.

"Yes, it's a bit funny because when I started on clay after Miami, I was like 'Oh, I really don't like this surface anymore.’” Cirstea told at Istanbul last month, where she snapped a 13-year title drought.

“It was a funny feeling because the whole last year it was during the lockdown, I was practising on hard court and then only played two events on clay, Palermo and Roland-Garros, and those were very short for me," Cirstea said. "So it's been mostly a year and a half on hard court, so when I came back on clay, I was like 'I don't like this at all', you know?" 

Like it or not, Cirstea is finding ways to win on the sport's most demanding surface. 

After an injury setback in Madrid, Cirstea returned to the clay in Strasbourg where she reached the final. She has since tacked on two more wins in Paris, where the 2009 quarter-finalist is into the third round on the terre battue for the first time since 2014. 

Sorana Cirstea, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Clément Mahoudeau/FFT

Cirstea now touts an impressive 10-2 record on the clay in 2021 and will face Russia’s Daria Kasatkina on Friday for a spot in the round of 16. 

After her 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory over 2020 quarter-finalist Martina Trevisan on Wednesday, Cirstea told reporters her success on the surface was simply a continuation of an overall uptick in her tennis and spirits.

“I have said it many times, Covid, it changed my life in a good way. I see things differently, and I'm much more mature,” the 31-year-old said. “I take it day by day now. I don't go ahead too much, and I try to enjoy being in the moment, in the now, because you never know what tomorrow will bring. I think this new mentality for me, it's working very well and it's also making me enjoy today and be present, be in the moment.” 

On Wednesday, Cirstea had to win with fortitude against Trevisan, a tricky southpaw who has a knack for turning tilts into street fights. 

“For me this is the proudest thing out of today and I'm proud of myself with the way I fought,” Cirstea said. "Yes, tennis-wise maybe was not my best match, but I think sometimes you can compensate with the heart and the will. I'm proud that today I found a way to win a match that was quite difficult.

“Of course there were some mistakes from my part, but I'm glad I stayed there. I think I won this match with the heart, not with the racquet.” 

Being forced off the tour for a half-year by a global pandemic enabled the Romanian to connect on a deeper level with the sport again. 

“I started seeing tennis from a different point of view and it's working much better because I don't get as stressed anymore,” she said. “I don't get excited anymore, I enjoy the battles. I actually want the matches to be tough ones, I want to show myself that I am strong.” 

Cirstea was still a teenager when she pushed through to the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros in 2009. It was an epic moment that remains her best Grand Slam performance. But the Romanian has connected with Roland-Garros on many levels across her 13 appearances on the terre battue. 

“I felt always Roland-Garros was special,” she said. “I have had a few third rounds where unfortunately I lost to the champion. I think one time to Serena, one time to Li Na. So it was more than that quarter-final for me when I think about Roland-Garros."

A lot of time has passed since, but Cirstea, with a renewed sense of purpose and joie de vivre, is eager to press forward and make new Paris memories.