Doctor knows best: Buzarnescu strikes blow for late bloomers

Dave JAMES
Time to celebrate: Romania's Mihaela Buzarnescu celebrates after victory over Ukraine's Elina Svitolina (AFP Photo/Eric FEFERBERG)
Time to celebrate: Romania's Mihaela Buzarnescu celebrates after victory over Ukraine's Elina Svitolina (AFP Photo/Eric FEFERBERG)

Paris (AFP) - Romania's Mihaela Buzarnescu speaks fluent English, French and Spanish, boasts a PhD and at Roland Garros has become the poster child for late bloomers everywhere.

The 30-year-old has made the last 16 at the French Open, winning her first ever matches at the Grand Slams despite being in the twilight of a career decimated by two knee surgeries which knocked her off course for the best part of three years.

Buzarnescu stunned fourth seed and two-time Roland Garros quarter-finalist Elina Svitolina on Friday, the latest twist for a player who this time 12 months ago was 377 in the world.

She was once the top junior in Europe but two knee surgeries saw her ranking eventually tumble to 891.

As she convalesced and wondered if her left knee would ever mend, Buzarnescu decided to make plans for the future and studied for a Ph.D in sports science.

"I didn't know exactly how it will be with the first surgery, how it will be with the rehab, if it will be good. So that's when I started the PhD," said the Romanian after defeating Svitolina 6-3, 7-5.

"It took three years, because I didn't play two to three years and I finished it December, 2016.

"I am happy that I did it. My father also did it. I said, 'well, if I'm not going to play tennis, maybe it would help me on my resume to have a job somewhere'."

Since her return, Buzarnescu -- who insists she does not want to be called 'Doctor' -- has been busily making up for lost time.

From the start of 2017, when her ranking was outside the top 500, she came into 2018 ranked at 72, becoming the oldest woman to debut in the top 100 for over a decade.

She has finished runner-up at Hobart, losing to Elise Mertens in the final, and then at Prague, beaten by two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.

Over the last 12 months, she has piled up 79 wins, more than any other player on tour.

But it's the Grand Slams which have proved the toughest to crack.

She had tried and failed eight times to qualify for the Slams before finally making it to the main draw at the 2017 US Open and 2018 Australian Open.

On both occasions, she was defeated by Caroline Wozniacki.

Making the last 16 in Paris, where she will face Madison Keys, the US Open runner-up last year, guarantees her 222,000 euros ($259,000).

That's a long way from the days on the second-level ITF tour where she eked out a living in far flung corners of the sport as well as in club tennis in Europe.

"I really didn't have any sponsors, so everything was paid by myself," she said.

Wozniacki, who has gone on to reach world number one and win her first Slam in Australia this year, remembers Buzarnescu from their junior days.

"She was always a great player. She got a lot of injuries then and had to fight her way back. I always knew that she had the level," said the Dane.

"I had tough first rounds playing her both at the US Open and the Australian Open, but I knew that it's just a matter of time before her ranking goes up and she's seeded in these events.

"I'm not surprised she's in the fourth round here."