Photo by Mal Taam/TennisClix/CSM

Bill Simons

When it first began, the super sports agency IMG was lucky. Its very first client, golfer Arnold Palmer, soared to success. Fame, power and a cadre of clients all came IMG’s way.

More recently the agency has endured some tough luck. Just one man blocked the much-needed expansion of its Miami Open tournament. The event had to move to a gritty Miami site. Similarly, a single Stanford donor who opposed any hint of commercialism at the Palo Alto university reportedly was the force behind the Bank of the West Classic being exiled from its longstanding campus home. And while IMG deserves immense credit for keeping the tourney in the Bay, tough luck hit the newly-named Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic at its new San Jose State University home.

Maria Sharapova withdrew. Serena, while bright and beautiful in a stunning red outfit, suffered the most lopsided defeat of her career, a 6-1, 6-0 loss to Britain’s Jo Konta. Two-time Slam winner Garbine Muguruza and US Open finalist Madison Keys also withdrew. Seven-time Slam winner Venus Williams and two-time Slam winner Vika Azarenka lost in the quarters.

Players who boasted a whopping total of 34 Slams were all gone. What remained was a weekend with more fresh faces than had ever been featured in the semis of the Bay Area’s WTA tourney: Miami Open semifinalist Danielle Collins, Belgian top 20 player Elise Mertens, the No. 24-ranked Romanian Mihaela Buzarnescu, and Greece’s No. 49 Maria Sakkari. Still, to some cynics, the tournament seemed a bit sickly. But no problem, it was time to call on a good doctor. You see, Buzarnescu is not only the best WTA player you’ve never heard of, she has a doctorate in sports science.

After years of struggle on the tour, knee and shoulder injuries had sidelined her. She endured two surgeries – things were grim. As a kid she’d beaten the likes of Caroline Wozniacki and Aga Radwanska. So what? Now she wasn’t even sure what kind of work she could get. The only option seemed to be to go back to school – so she did.

But she didn’t give up on playing tennis. Her dad and coach had always told her, “You hit once with a forehand, then once with a backhand, and everything will be ok for you.” She launched a return to the circuit. But things didn’t exactly jell.

At the beginning of 2017, Buzarnescu’s  ranking was on the wrong side of 500. Worse yet, the pain in her knees lingered. Then came a wonder. Playing in the surprisingly tough Dutch tennis league, somehow her pain vanished. Hallelujah! “Maybe I should go back there and see the air and talk to God,” she told IT. “Really, I have no idea what happened. I would say it was a miracle.”

Some call it the “Miki miracle.” In any case, the Buzarnescu buzz began. Then 29, and making up for lost time, she played 33 tournaments in ten months. At one point she scored 20 consecutive ITF wins. She beat the former French champ Jelena Ostapenko and, at this year’s French Open, downed the No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina.

But there was another Romanian who did pretty well in Paris. No. 1 Simona Halep drew everyone’s attention. While 20,000 turned out to celebrate Halep’s win, few took note of Buzarnescu.

Never mind that Miki had rocketed upward and reached No. 24. Just before Madison Keys was to play her in the fourth round of the French Open, the American said she wouldn’t even try to pronounce Buzarnescu’s name.

Well, the Romanian has now pronounced her greatness. In San Jose she dismissed two young Americans, Sachia Vickery and Amanda Anisimova, Australian Ajla Tomljanovic, and No.15 Mertens to reach the third final of her career.

But there, just a lob away from the San Jose State Spartans’ football stadium, the best WTA player to emerge out of Sparta, Maria Sakkari, was waiting for her. The 23-year-old had been flying her flag: “I have the Spartan inside me. I give my heart and everything until the last point. And I like drama.”

The Greek had lost four straight matches coming into San Jose, but once in town she beat No. 14 Venus Williams in the quarters and fought back from being down 3-6, 1-4 against American Danielle Collins to become the first Greek in a decade to reach a WTA final.

But Sakkari was nervous in her first final, and drained from her recent battles. She twice double-faulted in her first service game and quickly went down 0-3. No problem. Sakkari had come back from way behind against Collins – and she comes from a warrior culture that was famous for its ferocity. “If I win this war, you will be slaves forever,” was one of their not-so-jolly threats. Another was, “Once I enter into your territories I will destroy you all and you will never rise again.” But that was the Peloponnesian War. This was the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic. Buzarnescu took advantage of her early lead. Her forehand flowed deep and found the corners. Her corkscrew backhand ran Sakkari wide. Her serve was a weapon. It didn’t matter if the wind was in her face; clearly the winds were in her sails. Sure, it took her six set points in a marathon game at the end of the first set before she prevailed, 6-1, in 39 minutes.

“Let’s go – Spartan up!” yelled one fan near Gate F. Sakkari and her fellow Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, who reached the Washington DC semis, had given Greeks their best week in years. It mattered. Their efforts had provided much comfort to survivors of the second most deadly wildfire anywhere in the world in the 21st century.

But today, for all her warrior blood, Sakarri couldn’t offer a counterattack. Her hands fell to her hips. Her head sagged. Her coach’s pep talks were to no avail. This was a beatdown. In just 73 minutes, Buzarnesco raced to her first WTA title. Oddly, the greatest win of her career was by the same 6-1, 6-0 score as Serena’s most lopsided loss in her career.

Unlike Simona in Paris, Mihaela’s win in San Jose doesn’t mean she’ll be No. 1. And twenty thousand Romanians will not greet her when she steps off her flight to Toronto. But, amazingly, she will crack the top twenty.

Doctor Buzarnescu gave the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic quite a cure for its ills. And, most of all, she now has gained the mightiest of medicines – belief. While she was sad, depressed and at a loss just a few short years ago, she said today, “Before, I didn’t believe in anything. Now I think I believe in everything.”


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