One is a Wimbledon finalist who outclassed world No.1 Serena Williams in one of her most successful Grand Slam tournament settings; the other is an accomplished yet relatively little-known player who has only once been beyond the third round of a major.
But Monica Niculescu, the latter of those two women, had reason to be positive against Lisicki, an opponent she had already outclassed in two of their three previous meetings. Additionally, the hard-working and extremely fit Romanian isn’t afraid to show her fighting ability, which became a factor in her 2-6 6-2 6-2 upset of the tournament’s 15th seed.
The 49 rankings places that separate the women were obvious when the big-hitting German’s go-for-everything style produced more positives than problems early, Lisicki’s 18 winners to just one from Niculescu helping her claim the first set 6-2 in 33 minutes.
It was only in the fourth game of the second set that the world No.64 Niculescu managed to hold serve for the first time. And with that, came a turning point, Lisicki’s growing unforced error count suddenly becoming a lot more costly. There were a whopping 21 of them in the second set, partly negating the 15 winners against a less-flashy but more consistent opponent. With a second break of serve in the seventh game, Niculescu served it out for a 6-2 win in 43 minutes.
A 10-minute break off court, due to the high temperatures, seemed to have helped Lisicki the most early in the third set. She registered more ‘c’mons’, more forehand winners and more big serves in the opening few games but there were ultimately more errors too – 21 in that set and a damaging 56 in total, making Niculescu’s “just hang in” approach a wise one.
“Who knows?” the 26-year-old later explained of her mindset entering the match. “With this heat you never know.”
And that was exactly the right attitude, a disappointed Lisicki later conceding that after a strong start, the high temperatures were indeed a contributor to her loss. “I played well the first set and a half, I did everything the right way,” she said. “I guess the heat kind of got me. It was pretty visible as well that my legs got tired from the heat.”
So while Lisicki promptly withdrew from the doubles so she could return home, Niculescu will hope to maintain her fighting spirit in a third round match against Ekaterina Makarova, a two-time Australian Open quarterfinalist who upset world No.8 Jelena Jankovic in Sydney last week.
For Niculescu, the fourth-ranked of a growing legion of Romanians in the WTA’s top 100, it’s a chance to take another step in a career that reaped a first title, on the hard courts of Florianopolis, Brazil – in 2013.
She’ll once against be the lower-ranked woman against a seeded opponent, but having started her season with a quarterfinal appearance in Shenzhen and a pair of doubles titles (Shenzen and Hobart, both with Klara Zakapolova), her confidence is growing. And as Lisicki would agree, so too is Niculescu’s capability.