Sorana Cirstea after Istanbul title: “I found the joy again”

Sorana Cirstea had low expectations when the clay season started, but after a brilliant week in Istanbul she's earned her first title in over 12 years. Here she opens up about what changes to her game and mindset made it possible.

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Arriving at Istanbul, Sorana Cirstea wasn’t sure she wanted to step on the clay again. The Romanian had spent the last year and a half practicing and playing primarily on the hard courts, and in her head she didn’t feel at all ready for the challenge of the game’s most grueling surface. But Cirstea, a former Roland-Garros quarter-finalist, proved that the surface can be perfect for her game this week as she rolled to the Istanbul Open title without dropping a single set.

Istanbul Open: Draw 

We spoke to the Romanian, a former world No 21, after her semi-final victory over Marta Kostyuk (6-4, 6-4), and again after she defeated top-seeded Elise Mertens, 6-1, 7-6(3), in the final. Here is what Cirstea told us about her current mindset and her long awaited journey back to the winner’s circle.

On dreading clay court tennis: 

Cirstea says she was in no mood to return to the clay this spring. “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,'” she said. “It was a funny feeling because the whole last year it was during the lockdown, I was practicing on hard court and then only played two events on clay, Palermo and French Open, and those were very short for me, 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.'” 

But Cirstea says that her solid start to the 2021 season, which included wins over Petra Kvitova (Australian Open) and Belinda Bencic (Grampians Trophy) a has made her more confident in her tennis, no matter the surface.

“Somehow I managed to keep the good form that I had the last couple of months and maybe added a bit more variety to my game, and I think also the confidence, the fact that I’ve been winning a lot of matches this year, it plays a big role,” she said. 

sorana cirstea

Tennis more like Chess

Cirstea, who played her first WTA main draw way back in 2006, says she has evolved into a more disciplined player of late. She says she is looking at the game differently as she gets older – and wiser.

“Yes, definitely I’ve always been an aggressive player but probably sometimes a bit too hectic. So now I feel like I found more discipline on the court, and I’m trying to play smarter, even if I’m trying to play aggressive, and I think probably that was the change for me, I tried to look at the game in a different way, a bit like playing chess, and not just hitting hard, and in my mind, it kind of made the click,” she said. 

Lockdown Helped her Reconnect with the Joy of Tennis 

Cirstea opened up about her experience during lockdown, and told Tennis Majors that the extra time away from the sport helped her gain a new sense of perspective. She may have been feeling burnt out before the pandemic, but after having the sport taken away from her for so long, she said she developed a longing and a newfound lust for the competition. She said she is playing now, not in search of results, but rather from a passion for competing.

“I think just before Covid I was struggling a little bit, I was doubting a little bit my game, I was doubting a little bit the way I was working,” Cirstea said. “I didn’t really have the results I wanted, so of course the first period where we were in the first lockdown, I was a month without playing, but after that luckily, Romania was not as tough as other countries, so I could use the gym, I could go to a tennis court, and I had about four months of practice, and that changed my mentality.”

Cirstea said she suddenly found herself longing to get back on the tour. For the first time in a while, she actually missed tennis.

“That’s when I realised that I love competing, I’m very eager to get back to the tournaments, I found the joy again, to be on the court, and I didn’t just think of the results, [I thought about] the joy of just playing, and for me it was like a boost,” she said. “Also probably I was about six months at home and this was the longest since I was a kid, so I missed the travelling, I missed the luggage, I missed all those things, you know. So I started to look at tennis in a different way, and I started to find tennis enjoyable again no matter the result.”

2008? Thank God she wasn’t counting…

Cirstea’s first title since 2008, and her first ever on clay, is the result of an athlete reconnecting with her love for the sport.

“Thank god I don’t count the years, otherwise it would be tough for the head,” she said, referring to the 13-year title gap, “but I’m very, very happy, because I basically came all the way and I had five good matches, without losing a set, and also today beating a Top 20 player (Mertens, ranked 16), it gives me a lot of confidence, she’s also very solid and she doesn’t give you any free points, so I’m very, very happy about this title, because I think it’s one that I deserve.” 

Life gives lessons, so open your eyes 

Cirstea appears to have arrived at a much better competitive balance in her life, post pandemic. The Romanian says she is less stressed about her tennis and she doesn’t fear tough battles – she craves them.

“Yes, definitely, I do believe life gives you lessons every day, you just have to open your eyes and your mind, and be able to learn from them,” she said. “Like I said: tennis has been always my life, and once the Covid came I realized there are other things probably much more important, so losing a tennis match is not life or death. I started seeing tennis from a different point of view, and it’s working much better because I don’t get as stressed anymore, 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, and I’ve always been one of those people that I am my own biggest competitor, so today I think I showed that I’m stronger than in the past.” 

Discipline on court: another key

In terms of her tennis, Cirstea says that patience was a virtue during her run at Istanbul. It’s no secret that the Romanian, who entered the week at 67 in the rankings and is poised to rise to a projected 58, can hit for power, but this week we saw her mix in variety with her drop shot and also resist the temptation to go too big too soon. It’s a sign of her maturity, she says.

“Everyone knows I hit hard, everyone knows I’m aggressive, everyone knows I can hit forehand, backhands, there’s not much difference between my shots, but at the same time, they all know that if they keep a few balls in the court I’ll always try a bit too much maybe, and this week having that discipline to stay in the rally, not being afraid to stay in the rally, and picking up the right shot to go for the winner, I think that was the biggest difference this week.”

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