INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA – There was something special happening on Court 5 on Thursday, as a former Top 30 player battling as hard as she can to just play tennis again was battling to victory. Alexandra Dulgheru, one of the fastest-rising stars on the WTA in 2009 and 2010 but derailed in 2011 and 2012 due to knee troubles, played her first WTA-level match in exactly a year – and won.
Dulgheru’s breakthrough week came at Warsaw in May 2009, when – in her very first WTA main draw – she went all the way to the Premier title, afterwards going from all the way outside the Top 200 to inside the Top 100. She would win the Premier event again in 2010 and, shortly after a quarterfinal showing in Miami in 2011, peaked at No.26. Everything was coming up roses for the Romanian.
That was when the knee troubles began. As she talked about this past off-season, the pain became too much, and breaks from the game and small procedures weren’t helping – after retiring in her first round match at Indian Wells last year she opted for the surgery, which would put her out eight months.
And during that time, Dulgheru began focusing her energy on a different kind of art.
“I did this oil painting last year during my long period of recovery,” Dulgheru recalled. “As I was going to the clinic six days a week for two months and still had a full schedule afterwards, I only had time to do it on Sundays, but every Sunday since May I’ve been working on it for about three to six hours.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started it. I probably won’t do gardens or flowers for a while now! But it was a fun way to relax. And I never hurried it, I just wanted to do it well and capture all the details. Whenever I felt tired, I would take a break or leave it to the next weekend.
“It’s not finished yet, as you can see – I still have the path around the flowers to work on, and some other details on the painting as well – but I don’t think it will take too much longer to finish.”
Dulgheru has always had a talent for visual arts – not just painting. “I started drawing when I was six. Slowly I got better at it and found I had a talent for it. I do a bit of everything – drawing, sketching, clothes design, painting – whatever I feel like doing in that particular moment of inspiration. I’m thinking of doing something in this area after tennis, like architecture or design, whatever comes to me. And if I don’t follow this path, at least I want to continue with it as a hobby, because I like it very much.”
And what inspired her to do this particular painting? “My room is vintage style and there’s a free wall that needs a big painting, so this went well with the room design,” she said. “First we wanted to buy one and we were looking for the right one for a while, but then I thought, ‘Why not work on the painting myself? I have the time for that and would be so happy to try my skills on my first oil painting.’
“I printed two color gardens out from the internet, then I mixed them together into one painting, and there it is. I can’t wait to get back and finish it. I’ll send you another picture when it’s done!”
In the meantime, Dulgheru has been back on the court again over the last few months, playing some ITF Women’s Circuit and WTA 125K Series events – but she made her WTA-level comeback at Indian Wells on Thursday and was a winner, beating Portuguese qualifier Michelle Larcher de Brito, 64 64.
It may have only been a first round match, but it was a big win for Dulgheru – exactly a year since retiring in the first round here last year, which would end up being her last WTA-level match. And with her previous success in Miami and during the clay court season, it could be just the beginning.
“It feels great to be back on tour after such a long break,” she said afterwards. “I enjoy seeing all the other players again and the tournament staff, and to consistently play at this level once more.
“Playing my first tournament on hardcourt is a bit challenging for me now, but I just try to enjoy every second I spend on the court. It feels great to be back! My knees are feeling much better than before. I’m not at my highest level but I’m able to compete, and hopefully in a few months I’ll be fit again.
“In the match against Michelle I had to be consistent and play many rallies, and move a lot too – it was a good test for my knees’ status. I hope I can continue to feel good in the following days too.”
Dulgheru will play No.32 seed Peng Shuai in the second round on Saturday. The Romanian actually beat the Chinese in their only previous meeting, a straight-setter in the fourth round of Miami in 2011.