Success on the tennis court is something Sorana Cirstea has always experienced. She was No. 1 in the under-14 world rankings in 2003, played her first International Tennis Federation event the following year and quickly climbed the Women’s Tennis Association rankings after turning pro in 2006.
After ending 2008 as the 37th-ranked women’s player in the world at the age of 18, the Romanian rising star reached the quarterfinals of the French Open in 2009 and attained a career-best ranking of 23rd. She seemed to be on the fast track to the top 10, but her game declined after her run at Roland Garros and a right foot injury suffered at the end of last season carried over into this year.
Now ranked No. 104 by the WTA, Cirstea, 20, is the No. 1 seed for the second Lexus of Las Vegas Open, a $50,000 USTA women’s pro circuit event being played at Red Rock Country Club from Sept. 27 through Oct. 3.
“I feel my game is very [improved],” she says. “I’m playing much better than I was playing last year. I’ve improved in areas that I should, and I think it’s just a matter of confidence to getting back to where I was. To be honest, I’m really relaxed because I know it will come with hard work and positive attitude.”
After having always been among the top of her peers since she first started playing tennis at age 4, Cirstea says her biggest challenge has been to overcome the uncertainty that has crept into her mind at times on the court.
As someone who had never faced adversity on the court before, she says that experience made her question her game for the first time.
“I didn’t know how to handle things when that happened,” she says, “and it took me a while to get back with my game and with my confidence on the court. I think that was a very important issue, that maybe it didn’t give me the start of the year that I wanted.”
Cirstea has practiced in Las Vegas since 2008, when she began training with coach Darren Cahill and fitness trainer Gil Reyes as part of the Adidas Player Development Program before representing Romania at the Beijing Olympics, where she was defeated in the first round.
With Las Vegas serving as part of her training base, the decision to play here was an easy one for Cirstea, who believes that she has overcome her physical problems.
“The mental [game] is really important in tennis,” she says. “I’m still young so I’m still learning. … Maybe I didn’t know how to take that pressure and all the things that came with it. But I’m just now looking forward to playing the best that I can these last tournaments of the year and then hopefully start fresh and have a good 2011.”
Cirstea is among several talented women in the 32-player main draw for the Lexus of Las Vegas Open. The field also includes Romanian Edina Gallovits, ranked No. 80 in the world; former phenom Mirjana Lucic, who is ranked No. 115 as she continues her comeback following a four-year hiatus from tennis; and 19-year-old local product Asia Muhammad, who reached the quarterfinals here last year and was awarded a wild-card entry into this year’s tournament.
Cirstea, who lists Steffi Graf as her idol, says there is a very thin line between being one of the top 300 players in the world and reaching elite status.
“The top players are just very confident and always there,” she says. “They are just better in the important moments, so I think that’s the key. If you are top 10, maybe you have something else, like you are moving better or you are hitting harder, but the mental is really important and I think it’s the biggest difference between the two.”
Cirstea plans to remain in Las Vegas for a short while following the tournament to continue to fine-tune her game, and then return to Europe for the remainder of the year to prepare for next season. She is convinced that she will eventually achieve her goal of reaching the top 10, but for now she remains focused on simply getting better with each match.
“I’m trying not to think so much about the ranking because if I play well the ranking will come automatically,” she says. “I just want to focus on my game and develop and try to improve every day. And I’m sure if I do that then everything else will work out by itself.”