A regular for her nation in Fed Cup by BNP Paribas, Monica Niculescu spoke to the press ahead of this week’s $100,000 ITF Pro Circuit event in Khimki, Russia, where the former world No. 28 will be the top seed.
On Tuesday, Niculescu will start her quest for a first title on the ITF Pro Circuit since winning a $100,000 tournament in France in October 2015. And, fresh, from a practice session, said she was looking forward to the challenge: “First of all, I want to say that I’m very happy to be here. I’m looking forward to proving myself in the main draw. Overall spirit is wonderful.”
The 30-year-old might be new to Khimki, but she is a fan of Russia, with plenty of friends and colleagues to call on in the country.
“I like Russia, I come here with pleasure every time,” she said. “During the tournament in Moscow we visited Red Square and in Saint-Petersburg I remember an amazing player party. I have a lot of friends, colleagues here, such as Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova. I’m always treated warmly and nicely while staying in Russia. And now for the first time I’m in Khimki.”
Having friends in the game is something Niculescu believes to be beneficial.
“It is important to keep a good microclimate within tournament life in communication with other tennis players,” she said. “We’re nice to each other, respect each other.
“But now I’m entirely focused on preparing, because I haven’t had playing practice for five weeks.”
Niculescu is also more than comfortable with this week’s venue – the Alexander Ostrovsky Academy.
“I like being here, I’m training in a similar air-supported construction back home,” she said. “Its comfortable inside here, great lighting and temperature, there is a canteen on the territory. Basically everything a player needs for effective training.”
Niculescu is competing as the top seed for the first time since that aforementioned triumph in France, but she insists she doesn’t feel pressure at being labelled the tournament favourite.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re seeded or not, the pressure on every player is the same, because everybody [has] got something to lose. All players are in the same conditions.
“[However], I have to go back on the court after a break because of an arm injury, and the first match after a forced pause is always very difficult.”
Though yet to take to the court competively since last playing towards the end of March, Niculescu is already looking ahead to the impending Grand Slam in France stating: “My primary goal is to score [ranking] points and to attend Roland Garros 2018 in great shape.”
A regular in the pro game since 2002, the Romanian has had plenty of experiences on court, both good and bad but considers the most memorable to be in Beijing in 2011. “I had completed qualifying and in the first round I played against Na Li. The crowds were all cheering for her but despite this I won 64 60,” she remembers.
“The most painful defeat I experienced [was in the] Fed Cup in 2016 where we played Germany. The score was 1-2 and I had to play Andrea Petkovic. It was an important match for us, and if I won, I would level the scores. I had match points, but I lost [60 67(1) 36].”
Her most memorable win may have come in Beijing but her favourite tournament is over in the United States at Indian Wells, in part due to its “great atmosphere and great organisation” but also down to the technology available. “There you can use the HawkEye system, which allows you to check any controversial moment. It is great, you always feel much more confident.”
If Niculescu should find fault with her own performance, don’t expect to see her out in the same outfit again – she’s a supersitious person and will never wear it again.
When it comes to her equipment, Niculescu is also very protective: “I never let anyone change the grip of my racket,” she admits.
Niculescu turns 31 this September but is not yet planning on slowing down.
“Right now I don’t want to quit. If I won’t succeed in singles, I will try to achieve at least the Top 30 in doubles. Of course, I think about creating a family, about children, but at this moment, it is not a priority for me.”