Begging to Differ

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In a turbulent season, Irina-Camelia Begu has made herself a steady presence on tour. (AP)

Which is more surprising on the women’s side right now, a day filled with upsets or a day devoid of them? It has been a season of WTA surprises so far in 2016, and the early going at the French Open seemed to promise many more. No one was safe: On Tuesday, the tour’s biggest success stories of this year, No. 3 seed Angelique Kerber and No. 5 seed Victoria Azarenka, were eliminated in the first round

Looking down the schedule at the start of play on Wednesday, I expected to see more of the same. Simona Halep, Garbiñe Muguruza, Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska: Yes, they were all Top 12 players, but did we expect all of them to win? 

In perhaps the biggest stunner of the tournament thus far, each of them held her ground with a routine, straight-set victory, and each looked a little more like a contender in the process. For the moment, order has been restored, and the bottom half of the women’s draw no longer looks quite so wide open.

How disappointing.

Just when it seemed as if the drama would have to wait for another day, though, eyes began to turn toward little Court 2. There, the last match of the afternoon, a semi-obscure contest between 25th seed Irina-Camelia Begu and unseeded CoCo Vandeweghe, had taken center stage. 

The 25-year-old Romanian and the 24-year-old American had never played, but they were getting to know each other and their games quite well. Vandeweghe won the first set in a tiebreaker, Begu won the second in another tiebreaker, and, with no third-set breaker available to settle it, they threw haymakers at each other long after the bell had rung, to the delight of the fans who wedged themselves into Court 2’s tiny set of bleachers. 

Who needs star-power when you have matches like this? And who needs to see the same players win each week when there are women like Begu waiting in the wings for their chance? While the big names have been on a collective roller-coaster ride through the clay season, the Romanian has happily capitalized on the opportunity and filled the void with her consistent presence. 

After suffering a knee injury and struggling to win a match from January to March, Begu has had the best run of her career in April and May. It began when she reached the round of 16 in Miami, but she has only gained momentum since shifting to clay. Over the last month, Begu has reached the quarterfinals in Charleston and Madrid, and the semis in Rome. Along the way, she has recorded wins over Azarenka, Muguruza, Sabine Lisicki and Eugenie Bouchard. Her three-set record during that time is a head-spinning 10-1. This week she’s up to No. 28 in the rankings, three spots off her career high.

The woman who finally beat Begu in the Rome semis, Serena Williams, was suitably impressed.

“I think she takes the ball really early,” Serena said of Begu, “and it took me a minute to get used to her game...I see why she does so well. I feel like she’s a player that has a lot of intensity and she fights really hard. I can understand why the past couple of years she’s been doing so well.”

That intensity is what came across most clearly in Begu’s eventual 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 10-8 win over Vandeweghe. It was a quiet, focused intensity, the kind you need to survive, at three hours and 38 minutes, the longest WTA match of 2016, on one of the most claustrophobically intimate courts at any of the majors. 

Begu is 5’11, 148 pounds, and rail-thin. There’s a wiry, long-limbed strength to her game; she doesn’t make anything look easy, exactly, but—at least in this match—she didn’t make anything more difficult than it needed to be, either. Rather than linger over her mistakes, Begu got on with the business at hand. She had no choice: Against the American today, Begu was always playing catch up. 

Vandeweghe won the first set; Begu hung in. Vandeweghe served for the match; Begu hung in again. As the score and the pressure mounted in the third, the ball-clubbing Vandeweghe only clubbed it harder. Begu hung in, and, with the American serving at 9-10, came up with her best shot of the day, a hooking backhand pass that just cleared the net. Finally, when a Vandeweghe volley landed in the net on match point, Begu let her emotions out in a prolonged roar.

Unlike her more gifted countrywoman, Simona Halep, Begu knows she’s not going to win on talent alone.

“Even if you feel good on the surface,” she told WTA Insider, “there’s so many tough players and every round is difficult. It’s not like I feel so good on clay, and I can beat anyone. No, I have to work for every match. I feel confident, but still I have to work for every match.”

Maybe that has been Begu’s secret this spring. While her higher-ranked tour-mates must deal with expectations, from without and within, Begu is able to keep her head down and play the next match. She’s not at a stage in her career where she can really expect anything, especially at a major; coming into 2016, her career record at the Grand Slams was 13-18. Maybe she’s been helped by the attention that’s paid to Halep in Romania. Begu can go about her quiet business without feeling too much outside pressure. When it’s all about the work, that’s when tennis players find success.

How long will Begu be allowed to do her work under the radar? If she keeps winning, the attention will come, and it could come sooner rather than later. Next up for her is 39th-ranked Annika Beck in the third round; Begu, who has already played six sets this week, may be tired from her marathon effort on Wednesday, but that’s a winnable match.

Win or lose, though, Begu made herself a steadying presence in a turbulent season.

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