Slam Winner Virginia Ruzici discusses her career and Halep’s future [EXCLUSIVE] - UBITENNIS
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Slam Winner Virginia Ruzici discusses her career and Halep’s future [EXCLUSIVE]

The Romanian manager tells us of her penniless early days and of her greatest adversaries. She also recounts of her mentee’s dream run at the 2019 Championships and of the sport’s resuming play after the lockdown.

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Virginia Ruzici (credit Art Seitz)

UbiTennis has interviewed Virginia Ruzici, the 65-year-old former French Open champion from Romania who has been Simona Halep’s manager since 2008. Now living in Paris with her German husband, she reached the eighth spot in the women’s rankings after her win at Roland Garros in 1978. She reached the final once more two years later, losing to Chris Evert, a bonafide nightmare of an opponent for her, and she also made the semis in 1976, while she reached the quarters at least once in each of the four Majors.

 

After hanging her racquet for good, she began a management career, working for the Milan Open and IMG, before becoming Simona Halep’s manager in 2008, fetching her partnerships with brands like Lotto, Nike, and Wilson.

However, her early steps in professional tennis were humble to say the least: “In my late teens, I started to travel around Europe with Mariana Simionescu and Florenta Mihai (also top professionals from Romania), and we were always broke, and not just us – Ion Tiriac, later on my manager and now a billionaire, was always looking for ways to eke out a living in those days.

“We had some custom-made Romanian outfits, and we tried to sell them to pay for our hotel rooms, and on a couple of occasions we accepted to be umpires in France for the equivalent of one or two pounds. When we went to the US for the first time, at the beginning we couldn’t even afford to have our own rooms, and the North American swing lasted for four months back then, so we had better make some money quickly!”

Mariana Simionescu, Bjorn Borg’s first wife, was a particularly close acquaintance of Ruzici’s, her perennial roommate and a peer in the political struggles that Eastern Europeans faced back then when crossing over the Iron Curtain: “When we got to a European city, we immediately had to go to the consulate of the next country on our schedule in order to get a visa. So, if we went to Hamburg, I immediately went to the Italian consulate to get a permit to go to Rome the ensuing week.”

Ruzici spent seven straight years in the world Top 20 and won 12 official titles. However, she is adamant that her real tally is miscalculated: “I actually won fourteen tournaments. For some reasons, my wins in Gstaad, Bastad, and Zurich aren’t counted, while I’ve been attributed three wins in Kitzbuhel, where I only scored a brace.”

Her era was dominated by two of the greatest players of all time, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. The latter was a particularly tough client for the clay-court specialist, being probably the greatest female player to ever lace up on the surface: “I’ve never won against Chris, out of over 20 meetings. She was always too good for me, especially from a mental standpoint. I was an attacking player, and she just grinded me down on every single point, it was exhausting.

“I’ve never got a win against Martina either, at least officially, since I managed to defeat her during an exhibition match in Turin, and another time I also had a 2-5, 15-40 lead in the third against her in Dallas. Honestly, I wish I’d faced her on clay, because I think I could have brought the challenge to her – the only time we played a ‘clay’ match, we were in today’s Ukraine, and she was 16 or something, but the surface was this yellowish mud that I wouldn’t really call clay.”

Despite never vanquishing her biggest foes, she still racked up quite an impressive list of Top 10 victims, among which she mentions Andrea Jaeger (now an Episcopal preacher), Brit Sue Barker, Hana Mandlikova, Helena Sukova, Wendy Turnbull, and Dianne Fromholtz.

Simona Halep clinches the title at Wimbledon. (Credit: WTA via Twitter)

Nowadays, her name is inextricably tied to that of Simona Halep, whom she’s represented since 2008. Ironically, she was initially reluctant to take the job, because after five years with IMG (before that she worked for the Milan Open, spearheading the only women’s edition of the tournament, in 1991, and for Eurosport France) she was tired of being a manager. However, when an Italian promoter, Cino Marchese, counseled otherwise, and after she saw the strides that the teenager had made since she had last seen her, she realised that her fellow countrywoman had what it took to climb the rankings and accomplish something special.

Speaking four languages (Romanian, French, Italian, and English), she immediately started to plant the seeds for some remunerative partnerships, but at first it was hard to get some sponsors to raise their antennae for a diminutive-albeit-pugnacious Eastern European newcomer, even though she had won the Junior French Open right after Virginia came on board. Her first contract was with Lotto, an Italian brand, quite popular in tennis but a far cry from her current Nike deal, which, along with Wilson and a few other contracts, made her the fourth wealthiest female athlete in the world in 2019.

Sure, football die-hard Halep had a contentious relationship with grown-up Slams at first, losing her first three finals, one of them as the overwhelming favourite in Paris against Jelena Ostapenko. Ruzici is unsure whether that was ever a problem: “She lost the first one against Maria Sharapova, who had already won in Paris and who is someone who knows how to bag a Major, and the Australian one against Wozniacki was a nail-biter, ending 7-5 in the third against a former world champion, so they were understandable defeats. It is true, though, that she was crushed after the Ostapenko fiasco, because she was 6-4 3-0 up and suddenly choked, so it might have been a problem at some point.”

Halep finally broke the spell at the 2018 French Open, where she came back to defeat Sloane Stephens, and fulfilled a lifelong dream by winning Wimbledon last year, literally obliterating Serena Williams with a double 6-2 in barely over 50 minutes. Even her mentor was stunned: “She played the match of her life, no doubt about that. Serena had everything to lose, playing for the Slam record, but she admitted herself that she’d never seen Simona play that way, every shot she hit landed exactly where she wanted it to, it was a sight to behold.”

As to why her protégé peaked at the right time, she has a clear explanation: “In the first round, she played a very tight match against another Romanian, Mihaela Buzarnescu, and she might very well have lost that one, and the same goes for most of her matches. Playing such close-call encounters, she felt liberated, and also spent a lot of time on the court, so by the time she played Serena, she was… serene, and her fitness level was superb.”

The Covid-19 hiatus might have been a blessing in disguise for Halep, who injured her foot in Dubai and, according to her manager, would have needed to rest for one or two months anyway. She started to train at her usual pace a month ago, working exclusively on clay due to her affinity with the surface and due to the cheaper price it takes on her joints. Apparently, her training program wasn’t hindered by her coach, Darren Cahill, being unable to fly over from Australia: “She just streams her sessions for him, and he can instruct the on-site coaches to have her do certain drills or others – it’s a bit different than my playing days!”

The world N.2 is scheduled to be the marquee attraction at the first event after play resumes, in Palermo (although Ruzici is non-committal on the issue, she says that hopefully she’ll be ready), and even after then the situation is not very clear, given the spike in Coronavirus cases in the US, a potentially damning blow for Flushing Meadows’ hopes of attracting the best European players: “It’s too early to make a decision, right now she would have to quarantine for two weeks after coming back from New York, so it’s a difficult situation. I’m more optimistic with regards to the French Open, I live in Paris and still wear a mask in public, but the situation has improved a lot and I think that a 50-60% capacity event might actually happen.”

Halep’s ranking is now safe, since her Wimbledon haul will last for one more year, but will she still be at the top for a long time, especially in the wake of what Andy Murray has been saying about a narrowing window for success for older players? “I don’t see her doing what Federer or Serena do, world-class at 38, but I’m sure she’ll still be competing for the biggest prizes in her early-to-mid thirties – don’t forget that she is only going to turn 29 on September 27.”

However Halep’s career progresses from now on, her society with Ruzici has been exceedingly productive for both, and not just in terms of accolades and dough, but in communality in the sporting world too: UbiTennis’s director, Ubaldo Scanagatta, a long-time friend of hers, wants Virginia to be in Palermo with Halep so she can take her to dinner with his family to thank her for the time she’s given to our publication. Ruzici said she will probably eschew that station, but that she would gladly accept his invite during the French Open. It’s a date, then.

 

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Wimbledon Daily Preview: Compelling Matchups Scheduled All Around the Grounds on Thursday

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A look at the grounds of The All-England Club (twitter.com/wimbledon)

Day 4 play is headlined by top names such as Rafael Nadal, Iga Swiatek, Coco Gauff, and Stefanos Tsitsipas.  Those names are all considerable favorites in their second round matches, so other matchups on Thursday’s schedule may be more compelling and competitive.  And with many of those encounters scheduled at the same time, multiple screens are recommended.

 

Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the day’s five most prominent matches, while highlighting the other notable matches on the schedule.  Thursday’s play begins at 11:00am local time.


Filip Krajinovic (26) vs. Nick Kyrgios – Second on No.2 Court

Despite his usual poor behavior, Kyrgios survived in five on Tuesday against British wild card Paul Jubb, who is ranked outside the top 200 in the world.  But Nick is in strong form this month, with an 8-3 record on grass, having reached the semifinals of both Stuttgart and Halle.  Krajinovic is also in the midst of a strong grass court season, coming off a run to the final of Queen’s Club.  Like Kyrgios, he also required five sets to advance in the first round.  That was actually Filip’s first-ever win at SW19, as he was 0-4 prior to this fortnight.  Krygios leads their head-to-head 3-0 at all levels, though they haven’t played since 2015.  On grass, Nick’s formidable firepower should be plenty to prevail again over Filip, as long as he can maintain his composure.


Elena Rybakina (17) vs. Bianca Andreescu – Second on Court 12

On Tuesday, Andreescu achieved her first career victory at The Championships.  Bianca had only played five tour-level matches on grass ahead of this year, though she’s now 5-2 on grass this month.  Rybakina reached the fourth round of Wimbledon a year ago, but lost two of her three grass court matches coming into this event.  In their first career meeting, I give the slight edge to Andreescu based on recent form.  And while Elena has accumulated 22 wins this season, only four of them have come at Majors, and none of those four against a top player like Bianca.


Barbora Krejcikova (13) vs. Viktorija Golubic – Second on Court 18

This is only Krejickova’s fourth singles match since February due to an elbow injury.  Her opening round victory was her first since returning to the tour.  Golubic was a surprise quarterfinalist here a year ago, when she defeated both Danielle Collins and Madison Keys.  Yet she has not been able to follow-up on that result, as she has a losing record since that run.  They have split four previous meetings at all levels.  Their most recent clash occurred two years ago in Dubai, with Barbora prevailing 6-1, 6-2.  But her lack of match play, along with Viktorija’s grass prowess, make Krejcikova an underdog on this day.  While results on other surfaces have not followed, Golubic is now 13-7 on grass since last season, which includes a semifinal appearance earlier this month in Nottingham.


Karolina Pliskova (6) vs. Katie Boulter (WC) – 1:30pm on Centre Court

Pliskova was the runner-up a year ago, losing the championship match to Ash Barty 6-3 in the third.  Unfortunately a hand injury forced her to miss the first two months of 2022, and she’s only 9-10 this season as a result.  Boulter is a 25-year-old Brit who pushed Aryna Sabalenka to three sets at last year’s event, and is 8-3 on grass at all levels this season.  And just like week, Boulter beat Pliskova on grass in Eastbourne 6-4 in the third.  Now can Katie repeat that result on her country’s most prestigious court?  She’ll certainly have the full support of the Centre Court audience, and her experience last year on this court could prove extremely valuable.  Considering Pliskova has only twice won back-to-back matches this year, an upset on Thursday feels entirely possible.


Alex de Minaur (19) vs. Jack Draper – Third on No.1 Court

This could easily become the most competitive show court match of the day.  And the British crowd will be vociferously behind Draper, especially late in the day on the tournament’s second biggest court.  Jack is a 20-year-old Brit who last year took a set off Novak Djokovic on Centre Court.  And he’s collected 31 match wins at all levels this season, which includes four Challenger titles as well as a semifinal run just last week in Eastbourne.  But de Minaur is also having a strong season.  The Australian has 25 wins, all at tour level, and was also a semifinalist in Eastbourne.  Both players won their first round matches in straight sets, so they’re surely feeling fresh and confident.  While Alex’s defensive skills will force Jack to strike some extra balls, Draper’s offensive weapons will be rewarded on this surface.  And the crowd’s encouragement may be the x-factor Draper needs to prevail.


Other Notable Matches on Thursday:

Stefanos Tsitsipas (4) vs. Jordan Thompson – Tsitsipas prevailed in four sets on Tuesday, bringing his Wimbledon record to just 4-4.  He’s 1-0 against Thompson, who is only 8-12 this season at tour level.

Rafael Nadal (2) vs. Ricardas Berankis – Nadal is now 31-3 on the year, and seemed rather unbothered by his chronic foot injury in the opening round.  Earlier this season in Australia, he defeated Berankis in straight sets.

Iga Swiatek (1) vs. Lesley Pattinama Kerkhove (LL) – A victory for Swiatek on Thursday would be her 37th consecutive win, tying her with Martina Hingis for the longest women’s singles win streak across the past three decades.  Lesley is a 30-year-old ranked 138th in the world who at last year’s Wimbledon earned for first-ever main draw win at a Major by defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Simona Halep (16) vs. Kirsten Flipkens – Halep is on an eight-match win streak at Wimbledon, dating back to her title run in 2019.  36-year-old Flipkens has said this will be her last-ever singles tournament.  She was a semifinalist here in 2013. 

Coco Gauff (11) vs. Mihaela Buzarnescu – Gauff scarcely survived the first round, overcoming Elena-Gabriela Ruse 7-5 in the third.  But Coco should be able to settle into the tournament from here, especially against Buzarnescu.  She’s currently 127th in the world, and on Tuesday won her first WTA-level match in nearly a year.


Thursday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Roland Garros Daily Preview: The Second Major of 2022 Begins on Sunday

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A shot from the grounds of the French Open (twitter.com/rolandgarros)

The second Major of the year is upon us, with its unique Sunday start.  Roland Garros is the only Grand Slam event where first round singles play is spread across three days. 

 

The men’s draw is headlined by 13-time champion Rafael Nadal, defending champion Novak Djokovic, 2021 runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas, and the ATP’s breakout star of the last 12 months, Carlos Alcaraz.  The 19-year-old Spaniard will play his opening match on Sunday, as will top ATP names like Dominic Thiem and Sascha Zverev.

The women’s draw features 12 Major singles champions, five of whom have won this event: Iga Swiatek, Barbora Krejicikova, Simona Halep, Jelena Ostapenko, and Garbine Muguruza.  The 28-year-old Spaniard plays perpetual draw-buster Kaia Kanepi on Sunday.  The Order of Play also includes the red-hot Ons Jabeur and US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez, who faces France’s Kiki Mladenovic.

Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the day’s two most prominent matches, while highlighting the other notable matches on the schedule.  Sunday’s play begins at 11:00am local time.


Ons Jabeur (6) vs. Magda Linette – 11:00am on Court Philippe Chatrier

Outside of Iga Swiatek, Jabeur is the WTA player with the most momentum heading into Paris.  Before losing to Swiatek in the final of Rome, Ons was on an 11-match win streak, coming off her title run in Madrid.  She’s now 17-3 on clay this season, and has reached the fourth round of this tournament the last two years.  She’ll be a considerable favorite against Linette on Sunday, though Magda could easily test the sixth seed.  The 30-year-old from Poland was a quarterfinalist this year at clay events in Charleston and Strasbourg, and she owns victories over some top names at Majors, including Ash Barty and Elina Svitolina.  They’ve met twice before on clay, with both matches going to Jabeur.  That includes a three-set encounter at this event a year ago.  I expect a similar result on Sunday.


Hugo Dellien vs. Dominic Thiem (PR) – 11:00am on Court Simonne Mathieu

Thiem is a two-time French Open finalist, but he is still fighting for his first win in over a year.  Since coming back from his wrist injury, he is 0-6 at all levels, with all those matches occurring on clay.  Earning that elusive win in the best-of-five format may prove challenging for an out-of-form player.  This will be Thiem’s first match against Dellien, a 28-year-old from Bolivia who has played 43 matches on clay this season at all levels.  He’s accumulated 30 wins, and advanced to two Challenger finals.  However, Hugo is yet to defeat a top 40 player this year.  While Dominic is not currently a member of that group, and is not performing at that level, taking out a Major champion at a Grand Slam event remains a daunting task.  At a tournament where Thiem has fond memories of success, I expect Dominic is earn his first win since last May.


Garbine Muguruza (10) vs. Kaia Kanepi – Second on Court Simonne Mathieu

Muguruza is a two-time Major champion, and won the third-biggest title of her career at November’s WTA Finals in Guadalajara.  But since that title run, Muguruza has struggled mightily, with a record of 7-8 in 2022.  She’s won back-to-back matches only once this season.  And in the opening round, she’s drawn one of the sport’s most dangerous floaters.  Kanepi has made a career out of upsetting top seeds at Majors.  As per Tennis Abstract, she owns nine top 10 wins at Grand Slam events, over the likes of Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep, and most recently at January’s Australian Open, Aryna Sabalenka.  Kaia is a seven-time quarterfinalist at Majors, including two times at Roland Garros.  Her only previous meeting with Muguruza took place eight years ago in Melbourne, when Muguruza prevailed in three sets.  But considering Garbine’s recent form, and Kaia’s history at Majors, this match is definitely deserving of an upset alert.


Carlos Alcaraz (6) vs. Juan Ignacio Londero (Q) – Fourth on Court Philippe Chatrier

Alcaraz has rapidly become one of the ATP’s players.  Carlitos is 28-3 in 2022, with four titles.  He is No.3 in the year-to-date rankings, and is within 200 points of the two players ahead of him (Nadal, Tsitsipas).  The teenager arrives in Paris on a 10-match win streak on clay, having taken back-to-back titles in his home country.  Londero is a former top 50 player who reached the fourth round of this event in 2019.  But he is coming off multiple seasons with a losing record, and hasn’t played a match since early-April.  Alcaraz should not have much trouble dismissing Londero on Sunday, though it is always a treat to see the Spaniard’s formidable skills on display.


Leylah Fernandez (17) vs. Kiki Mladenovic – Fourth on Court Suzanne Lenglen

Fernandez has not immediately been able to follow-up on her thrilling US Open run from last summer.  Despite winning a title in Monterrey, she hasn’t reached a quarterfinal at any other event this year.  But still only 19-years-of-age, Leylah undoubtedly has some big results ahead of her.  Mladenovic was top 10 player in 2017, the same year she was a quarterfinalist at her home Slam.  But the Frenchwoman is 2-4 in Paris since, and only 2-10 this season at all levels.  While Kiki will certainly be motivated by the Parisian crowd, it would be surprising if she could upset Leylah, as the Canadian remains a dogged competitor who thrives on big stages.


Other Notable Matches on Sunday:

Sloane Stephens vs. Jule Niemeier (Q) – Stephens was the 2018 runner-up in Paris, and reached the fourth round a year ago.  But she’s 0-4 on clay in 2022.  Niemeier is a 22-year-old German who won an ITF-level event on clay last month.

Grigor Dimitrov (18) vs. Marcos Giron – Dimitrov is only 12-11 lifetime at Roland Garros, though he was a semifinalist in Monte Carlo this season.  This is a rematch from last year’s French Open, when Giron defeated Dimitrov after Grigor retired during the fourth set.

Felix Auger-Aliassime (9) vs. Juan Pablo Varillas (Q) – Auger-Aliassime is still looking for his first main draw win at Roland Garros.  He is 8-6 on clay this year.  Varillas is a 26-year-old from Peru who has won 19 matches on clay this season at all levels.

Maria Sakkari (4) vs. Clara Burel – Sakkari has some scar tissue to overcome at this event, as in last year’s semifinals, she was one point away from defeating eventual champion Barbora Krejicikova.  Burel is a 20-year-old from France who is a former junior No.1.

Sascha Zverev (3) vs. Sebastian Ofner (Q) – Zverev has reached the second week of this tournament four consecutive times.  Ofner is a 26-year-old from Austria who prevailed at a Challenger event in Prague last month.


Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.

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[VIDEO] Merry Christmas from Ubitennis!

Our CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta sends his greetings to all the readers of ubitennis.net

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From everybody at ubitennis.net, we want to send to our readers our Christmas greetings: thank you for your ever-growing support! Here’s a message from the website’s CEO, Ubaldo Scanagatta:

 

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