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Simona Halep is in no doubt as to how Romania feels about Emma Raducanu. "The people here are proud of what she has done," says the country's two-time Grand Slam champion. "They have adopted her, let's say."
As a woman who had 20,000 people celebrate her homecoming at Bucharest's National Stadium after she won Wimbledon, Halep knows how this nation can fall in love with a new tennis star, and in Raducanu - whose father, Ian, is Romanian - they have found one.
It helps explain the wave of enthusiasm that has swept over Raducanu since she arrived in the country for this week's Transylvania Open, where she plays Slovenian world No 123 Polona Hercog in the first round, most likely on Tuesday. Fans turned out in force to watch her practice session at the BT Arena, with a couple of hundred attending her training session on centre court with Gabriela Ruse on Sunday, and applauding her efforts enthusiastically.
— Transylvania Open (@TransylvaniaOpn) October 24, 2021
After practice, she was called back onto the court with Ruse and two other Romanian entries in the draw - not including Halep - and given the microphone to address the crowd. Apologising for her limited grasp of the language, she elicited chants of "Emma, Emma" from the crowd and even a couple of "bravos" when she ended her short speech by saying she was "proud to be Romanian".
Monica Niculescu's reaction to Emma speaking in Romanian is PRICELESS. pic.twitter.com/4DVvuscR0f
— Ramona Toderaş (@RamonaToderas) October 25, 2021
When British Raducanu stormed her way to the top of tennis last month, the world took notice. But there was particular attention paid, Halep says, in the country she calls home.
"I heard many people talking about this - what she's done is amazing, it's huge to win at 18," Halep says. "In Romania, we have had big champions in tennis - we had Virginia Ruzici, Ilie Năstase, a history in the sport. Then a gap and then I came with the big results. [There is] a big community of sports fans, who follow everything and go everywhere they can with the Romanian flags - it's a big boost for everybody in Romania when somebody wins a big tournament. They fit themselves into that success."
Laughing, she adds: "And Raducanu being a very specific Romanian name, they feel like she is Romanian. It is very, very Romanian."
Luminita Paul, a journalist for Romanian sports newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor, agrees. "They pretty much think of her, I don’t know if 'one of us' is right, but somebody who relates to us and with Romania," Paul says. "If she did not have that surname - a very common Romanian name - I think maybe it would have been a little different. But with this name, it’s easy to cheer for her and to like her."
Like in Britain, Raducanu first drew headlines in the Romanian media when she played Wimbledon for the first time this summer. During her impressive run to the fourth round, the teenager eliminated Romania's Sorana Cirstea and piqued the attention of tennis followers back home.
"I was immediately impressed with [Raducanu's] game and attitude and, I do not know why, Evonne Goolagong was coming in my mind," says Virginia Ruzici, an icon of Romanian tennis who won Roland Garros in 1978, in reference to the Australian seven-time major champion of the 1970s. "Maybe because she moves without effort, is very light on the feet as well, and plays clean tennis with a lot of variety too. Right then, I thought that she has a bright future with huge potential, but I did not think that she will win a Grand Slam so quickly."
After New York in September, images of Raducanu cradling the US Open trophy were plastered across every newspaper and television news bulletin across Romania, accompanied by mentions of her "Romanian roots" or "Romanian father". Her grandmother was caught up in the circus too, getting interview requests from all the national - as well as international - media outlets. The fervent interest in this new sporting superstar has only grown since Raducanu announced she would play in Cluj-Napoca this week.
There is a precedent for a relative outsider being "embraced", as Paul puts it, by Romanian fans. Similar attention was paid to Canada's Bianca Andreescu, whose parents are both Romanian, when she burst onto the scene in 2019, also winning the US Open as a teenager.
"It’s a little different, as she actually lived for a few years here and trained here, which is not the case with Emma, but at that time she was very important for all the media and all the people who followed her," she says. "Everything she was doing was covered, if it was an Instagram photo or a big win in a tournament - it was almost like she had the same coverage as Simona.
"That was the reality - it’s this hunger to have an icon to cheer for. And something pretty similar happened with Emma since Wimbledon, and then of course with the US Open it exploded. Now, if you access our website, there is a lot about Emma. A lot, a lot of news about her. Now that she’s coming to Cluj, it will be huge I think."
She looked right at home, despite this being her first time in Cluj. As a child, she regularly visited her grandmother in Bucharest, where her home comforts included her favourite dish of sarmale - pork mincemeat with cabbage leaves and rice. She grew up idolising national icon Halep, something Ruzici says is common: "I think that Simona's achievements and nice personality have been an influence on many Romanian parents to bring their daughters to tennis. [In] fact, Emma considers Simona as her favourite player and this is very nice to see."
When Halep messaged Raducanu on Instagram in July, to congratulate her for her performance at Wimbledon, the teenager was not shy about showing her longtime admiration, sending her a photograph from 2014 of her posing with Halep at an event aged 11. "I decided to post it [on social media] because I felt it was so funny," Halep says. "I liked the picture, it was a nice moment. Then she won the US Open, it’s huge for her."
We should never underestimate the importance of female role models in sport and creating opportunities for young athletes to get close to them. Emma Raducanu’s dad is Romanian and here she is with Simona Halep. 💕 @EmmaRaducanu @Simona_Halep pic.twitter.com/DgGugEE6Fn
— judy murray (@JudyMurray) September 12, 2021
The pair could well meet for the first time on tour in the semi-finals in Cluj, after being drawn in the same half. At Indian Wells earlier this month, they were on course to play each other in the third round, if not for Raducanu losing her first match since the US Open.
Halep, who took four attempts to win her first major final, says she marvelled at Raducanu's mental strength when watching her storm through the field in New York.
"I think what impressed me was her aggressiveness, she plays aggressive - but not very strong, or powerful, but rather very intelligent, very smart. And she's moving very well, as well. What was the most, let's say beautiful thing that I saw is the mental part. To be so young and to be so calm, and like very powerful on the emotions, it was impressive."
The only shame is that emergency crowd restrictions put in place by the Romanian government, due to rising Covid cases, now mean the event will be played completely behind doors. Even so, Halep insists Raducanu can count on their longtime support: "There's no doubt she has many fans in Romania," she says. "She has it in her blood."