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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Steve Flink: “Jannik Sinner Will Be a Top 10 Player by the US Open”

The Hall-of-Famer journalist comments on Hurkacz’s surprise win in Miami and previews the clay season. Who was the biggest letdown, Medvedev or Zverev? Nadal will soon be world N.2 again, while Andreescu is striving to stay healthy.

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The first Masters 1000 event of the season wrapped up on Sunday, but another already looms in wait in Monte Carlo, and on a different surface. To comment on the situation of the two tours, Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta was joined by his colleague Steve Flink: they focused on Hubert Hurkacz’s surprise win as well as on Jannik Sinner’s great run in Florida – Asheigh Barty’s permanence atop the rankings was also discussed. Here’s their chat:

 

00:00 – The man of the hour is Hubert Hurkacz: “He had an amazing run, defeating five players with a better ranking than his!” What was the key strategy in his final win over Sinner?

07:30 – This was the first Masters 1000 event since 2005 not to feature either Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, or Murray – a wasted chance for Daniil Medvedev? He started as the clear favourite, but his attitude against Bautista Agut left something to be desired…

12.50 – What lies ahead for Sinner? Some of the greatest names in the game did well in Miami in the past – a sign of things to come?

16.20 – Hurkacz betrayed some nerves against Rublev and Sinner, but held on to serve those matches out. Sinner, on the other hand, wasted a 6-5 lead in the opening set – what can he do to improve?

22.50 – Whose great champion does Hurkacz’s serve remind Ubaldo and Steve of? A look at the other players who underperformed in Miami, starting with Tsitsipas and Rublev.

32.00 – “Alexander Bublik reminds me of Safin, he’s an entertainer and he is not boring in press conferences!” What about Sebastian Korda – does he have the mettle of a champion?

40.00 – The women’s tournament: “I expected a great final, but Andreescu was clearly spent – I hope she’ll manage to stay healthy.” Was Osaka’s no-show against Sakkari a worrying sign?

45.30 – If the Canadian is healthy, will she join Osaka and Barty as the defining players of the decade? Who else could make a run to the top?

49.30 – This week, 10 Italian players feature in the ATP Top 100 – will at least one of them feature at the ATP Finals in Turin?

Transcript by Antonio Flagiello; translated and edited by Tommaso Villa

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Editorial

Women’s Tennis’ Best Player Wins Again

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It wasn’t long ago that Naomi Osaka appeared to be a talented young tennis player who had lost her way. On a rather warm April day in Charleston, S.C., in the 2018 Volvo Car Open, the then 20-year-old had had enough. As perspiration streamed down her face while she walked to her bench on
the jam-packed smallish outside Althea Gibson Club Court, Osaka looked at her coach and made the remark that she didn’t want to be there. Of course, she was losing. Osaka finished that round of 16 match, eventually losing to Julia Goerges.

 

NO WORRIES ABOUT PURSE
Obviously, Osaka wasn’t worried about the larger purse she missed by losing that day in Charleston. Money wasn’t that big a deal. Just two weeks earlier, Osaka had earned a $1.34 million check for winning the mega tournament at Indian Wells, Calif. The world was her game.
A few months later, Osaka won her first Grand Slam title at the 2018 U.S. Open. And now the powerful 5-11 native of Osaka, Japan, looks unstoppable with four Grand Slam titles in less than three years. Serena Williams probably is more worried about Osaka matching her record than Serena is
about surpassing Margaret Court in the number of Grand Slam titles.
Osaka is that good these days on the court, while making waves with her politeness and well-spoken interviews.

BRADY NO MATCH FOR OSAKA
Jennifer Brady was no match for Osaka in Saturday’s Australian Open final, falling much the same way Serena Williams had been dominated a couple of nights earlier. Osaka just turned the6-3, 6-4 victory she posted over Williams to a 6-4, 6-3 over Brady and a second straight Australian Open title.
Brady tried to out-hit Osaka. That was a mistake as the 24-year-old former UCLA star couldn’t keep her over-hit balls on the court in the face of Osaka’s meticulously placed, yet powerful serves and ground strokes. Brady fell victim to Osaka’s near-perfect cross-court put-aways from both sides on short balls.

OSAKA WAS A SUPERSTAR IN WAITING
The first time I watched Osaka in person was in the 2017 Volvo Car Open when a red-hot Shelby Rogers (she had just beaten long-time friend Madison Keys) scored a straight-set victory as Osaka watched too many of her shots miss their mark. It was rather surprising even then as a 19-year-old that Osaka was often losing matches. Her game was already spectacularly based on power. She was so talented and good that she was a
can’t-miss future superstar. Osaka is a quicker version of Serena. She has the entire package of talent.

No one in women’s tennis probably has better control of her shots and serves in pressure situations than Osaka. She also must have some of the quickest feet in the game, while being able to fight off her opponent’s hardest-hit shots with her upper body strength. It’s not surprising that Chrissie Evert calls Osaka “the best player in the world.” She may be just that by a long ways.


James Beck has been the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. See his Post and Courier columns at postandcourier.com and search for James Beck.

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Editorial

Medvedev, Not Tsitsipas, Looks Like A Grand Slam Champion

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Stefanos Tsitsipas looked like he might be a serious contender to win this Australian Open after his startling upset of Rafa Nadal in the quarterfinals.
But then, it wasn’t as much that Tsitsipas won that match as it was that Nadal lost it. Nadal was just out there the last two sets and the third-set tiebreaker after smothering Tsitsipas the first two sets.

 

NADAL WASN’T HIMSELF
Obviously, Nadal wasn’t himself physically after the first two sets. He was completely un-Nadal, even flubbing a pair of overheads in the tiebreaker. Those two overheads told the story for a player who quite possibly has the best overhead in men’s tennis. And then there was the string of miss-hit ground strokes by Nadal while repeatedly not even making a move for the ball at times during the last three sets as he watched Tsitsipas hit winners that normally would have been answered by Nadal.

TSITSIPAS ENJOYED HIS CAKE WHEN HE COULD
Tsitsipas made the last two sets of his 3-6, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 7-5 win over Nadal look like eating a piece of cake. It was evident that he faced little resistance from Nadal. Yet, I for one was fooled into thinking that the athletic 22-year-old Greek was a little better than he really is.
Even John McEnroe was predicting that Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev might win 10 Grand Slam titles between them. If that happens, Medvedev likely will have to win all 10 by himself.

A GRAND SLAM CHAMPION?
Tsitsipas just doesn’t look like a Grand Slam champion. At least, not in the Australian Open semifinals in his straight-set rout by Medvedev. Tsitsipas appeared to be following the sameformat against Medvedev that he used against Nadal, following two lackluster sets with an upgrade in his energy and play in a tight third set. Tsitsipas had Medvedev thinking the semifinals could be a repeat of the quarterfinals if the Russian didn’t pull his game together late in the third set to wrap up a 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 victory and a spot opposite Novak Djokovic in the final. Of course, the young Greek might get better with age.

MEDVEDEV COULD COOL DOWN AGAINST NOVAK
Tsitsipas might sneak up and win a major when the other new stars of the game see their games briefly fall apart or the “Great Three” of Nadal, Roger Federer and Djokovic have faded into just legends of the game. Of course, there is a chance that Medvedev could cool down before or during Sunday’s
championship match against the rubber-like Djokovic. But maybe not. I could see Medvedev wearing Djokovic down. This will be Medvedev’s second Grand Slam final. He may be ready this time to pull it off this
time.

THE PHENOMENALLY TALENTED NOVAK
Djokovic is a phenomenal talent, especially in Rod Laver Arena in the middle of the U.S. night. His only weakness has been his physicality. He has shown that weakness throughout his career, although not enough to prevent him from winning 17 Grand Slam titles, just three behind Nadal
and Federer. You might say Djokovic has owned Rod Laver Arena. Eight titles Down Under is almost as amazing as Nadal’s 13 French Open crowns. Nearing his 34th birthday, Djokovic, of course, is a little younger than both Nadal and Federer. But Novak is less than a year younger than Nadal. Federer is 39 and looking a lot like Super Bowl wonder Tom Brady.


James Beck has been the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. See his Post and Courier columns at postandcourier.com and search for James Beck.

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