Monica Niculescu: “Kerber is a worthy number one, the level is so strong now”

Most players after a three hour long battle, even though victorious, would not come up for a one on one interview, but everyone who has seen a little bit of tennis knows that Monica Niculescu is rather unique in everything she does, so with no surprise she showed up not long after her win. She is relaxed as we greet and apologises for sipping distractedly a box of cold cocoa: “I forgot my shake in the hotel, but after such a match, I deserve one!” She smiles and immediately makes herself comfortable and by doing this she gets ready for her show: the crafty Romanian is unique on court with her slicing, dicing and unpredictable game, but she can be even more so when she gets talkative. She is smart, witty and naturally funny, qualities that she showed as soon as her first very lengthy answer comes to an end with her voice fading and cough stopping it: “Why am I losing my voice already?!” she said: “Very strange… oh right, I think I screamed a bit too much during my match today”. This is Niculescu and this is the tone one should be reading this piece, because no one could resist from smiling when she puts on such a show.

We have seen Sorana and other friends in your box or among the public cheering and supporting you. How is to have fellow players from your country, who you know very well, on your side?
We are so many from Romania. We have Simona [Halep] and I’m very good friend with her, Irina [Begu] and we are friends and we also play doubles together. But also Mitu, Olaru, Tig, Bogdan, such a long list. We play together, we support each other, we play Fed Cup together and we do such a good job. It is amazing what is happening to Romania, we are friends and so many in top100. It is fantastic to have their support, especially when you are travelling alone and playing long-hard matches.
You’ve been talking about doubles, and this year you did outstanding job in doubles, even if with many different players.
Yes, this year I did very good in doubles. I have been a bit injured and I think my game has not been like at the beginning of the year when I was doing very well, when I also achieved again my best ranking at 27. Then, again, I hurt my back. I came back too soon, in Wimbledon, and I was still feeling pain. Same in Bucharest and then also in Washington. For this reason, for me it was easier to play doubles: you play maybe just one hour, you play differently, you have some help from your partner.
So I decided to keep playing doubles, waiting to play again my true tennis in singles. After all doubles gives you point like singles, it is like a real match… well actually it is a real match [laughter]. Playing points in practice is not like playing in a match and I was very happy to have the chance to play doubles, to win many matches, a lot of matches, actually, and even some tournaments, I felt fantastic. I also played with Sania Mirza in New Haven: I asked her and she said yes and it was a wonderful experience, also because it is never easy to win a tournament.
Now I feel better with my back, my tennis is getting better. I won two rounds at the Us Open where I beat Strycova in a very good match, I won other matches. When I was injured it has been a tough period: I had final in Nottingham to defend, also a win in an ITF, 4th round at Wimbledon… and I couldn’t even play those tournaments. In Wimbledon I felt pain as soon as I started my match.
Now I will play Luxembourg and then Poitiers, it’s a $100.000 ITF that I won last year. This is my plan but I don’t know how I will feel, who knows which part of my body will hurt [laughter]. You know, I had hernia at a disc and it blocked also many thoracic movements: backhand or forehand was the same, I couldn’t run, I wasn’t able to bend. It was very bad. I didn’t even enjoyed the time at home: I was always with doctors.
Do you think you will find a stable partner in doubles, maybe to reach bigger goals and, who knows, even Singapore?
Well… I don’t know what to say. You have seen how many partners I changed lately [laughter]. I’m hoping to find a stable partner, that’s my plan, maybe to win bigger and more tournaments. But I don’t know what is going to happen next year, and I don’t want to say something just to make the opposite happen, you know [laughter]. Better say nothing [laughing]. For sure next year I want to be healthy, I want to have a stable physio with me together with my coach. It won’t be easy but I will try it. Then I will try to play maybe less tournaments, for sure less tournaments on clay, which is not my favourite surface for sure.
The leader of women’s tennis changed: Kerber took the spot of Serena now. What do you think about this new situation?
Kerber had such an amazing season. C’mon, she totally deserved it! She won two Grand Slams, she is very consistent, she is mentally strong, she is lefty, she is confident. She is also great physically, you can see her playing three hours without getting tired. She had a wonderful season and when you do so good the ranking changes. I heard Serena has now problems with her shoulder and it is not easy when you are injured, like I just told you. But Serena is still very strong, so she will try to get back to the top next year.
In the recent past, all big tournaments and Grand Slams too have been won by powerful players who hit strong, like Serena, Kvitova, Sharapova…
You know what I think? Some years ago, all these girls were reaching quarter finals in tournaments very easily, too easily, always 6-1 6-2 and no actual opponents for them. Now it’s not anymore like this! It is very tough for everyone from the first match. For example, Misaki Doi played Belinda Bencic in Us Open, had match points and almost win, then again Misaki Doi [laughter] in Australia played Angelique Kerber, almost made it and then Kerber won a slam. You can’t anymore look at the draw and say ‘quarter finals will be this vs this and so on’. Players improved and they are better even if they are not in top10, it’s not possible anymore to say ‘this player will beat this other one in a sec’ [cracking fingers].
And this could give to players like you are more hope, right?
Players like me need always to have hope [laughter]. But yes, that is why we are playing: to be better and to be every time closer to the top10. You have to play your tennis, believe in yourself and do the best you can do. And when you win, your confidence keeps going up and maybe you can also win tournaments… and then you never know.
Can also other people’s win, like Roberta Vinci’s against Serena, give confidence to other players?
You are Italian right? [laughter] To me, it was very good to see Vinci doing what she did. You know, she always plays slices and when I saw that victory I thought I could have done the same. Serena doesn’t like slices, I also played her in Indian Wells and Miami and I gave her troubles. I was happy Vinci won. And she also entered in top10, I want to be like her and play well like her. I don’t know what are her plans for next year, probably nobody knows, but can you imagine Niculescu/Vinci as doubles team?! [laughter]. I don’t know if she will keep playing doubles if she stops in singles… but hey, she was also no. 1 in doubles and this give me again hope to be there too. It is never easy with slices but she managed to be a champion with Sara Errani. With a good partner you can do everything. And I always watch Vinci’s match when I have the chance, also Flipkens’… we are interesting, I think we are nice to watch. Ok, she has backhand slices and I have forehand slices, but it is interesting for me to watch to check what she does in key moments and so on. I don’t know if Vinci watches me, but I watch her. Better don’t ask her this, cause I am not sure I want to know the answer [laughter].
What do you think your opponents feel when they play against you, against such a unique tennis?
I’m not sure, but I can say what I feel when I play against players who mix a lot the game and use slices and so on. More than once I felt like ‘what should I do know?’. I’m not sure of what others can feel usually, but I’m pretty sure they are not happy [smile].
Last thing. We know it is a very hot topic…
…doping right? Oh no please, I am having so much fun [laughter]. And look at my doping here [she is drinking a chocolate milk]: see, this has no consequences with anti-doping… well, cellulite apart [laughter].

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