INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — When Monica Niculescu takes the court on Friday night to face No. 1 Serena Williams in her highly-anticipated return to the BNP Paribas Open after 14 years, she knows she will be overmatched. Ranked at No. 68, the 27-year-old from Romania plays the most unique brand of tennis on the WTA Tour, one that lacks the signature shot that defines the current women's game: a topspin forehand.
With a topspin forehand absent from her game, Niculescu has played most of her life with a forehand slice—a shot that floats slowly through the air and lands with enough backspin to stay low after every bounce. Despite various coaches' attempts to drill it out of her, that shot has remained firmly entrenched in her arsenal and it's one that can drive her opponents absolutely crazy. In an era of powerful baseline hitting, players are used to absorbing and redirecting pace. She's tennis' current answer to former Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield's knuckleball. It's a trying test of patience to have to hit no-pace slices over and over and over again. Add in her flair for getting to the net to finish off points, and she does everything in her power to keep her opponents off-balance.
Watch her carve up Kirsten Flipkens earlier this year in Antwerp:
And then there's this forehand slice that actually comes back over the net. There's never too much spin for Niculescu:
Ahead of her matchup against Serena in Indian Wells, SI.com caught up with the affable Niculescu to talk about how she developed her game, whether she likens herself to "The Magician" Fabrice Santoro, and how she sees the game differently than her power-hungry peers.
SI.com: How did you first start playing tennis?
Niculescu: We had good players in Romania. Ilie Nastase, Andrei Pavel, Ion Tiriac. My mom was always watching and the tennis club was two minutes from our house. She was like "I don't want you to stay indoor[s] all day in front of a computer so you have to do a sport." So we started and suddenly I was winning ITFs and European championships.
SI.com: When did you first pick up a racket?
Niculescu: When I was four years old. I didn't like to play slice when I was four. I was playing normal. Maybe around nine years old I started to change. The players were hitting so hard and I didn't have a coach, so I just played how it came that day. So I started to play like this all the time. I feel very comfortable. For me this is comfortable. Everybody is hitting with topspin but for me it's like somebody doesn't slice at all and then they slice. It's not comfortable for them but for me it is. It's like how somebody hits with topspin all their life. I hit like this all my life.
SI.com: When did your unique style finally settle in?
Niculescu: When I was young I was with my sister and with my mom all the time traveling and I just started one day to play like this and I was winning and I was European champion. In many ITFs I was winning and I was No. 4 in the juniors. It was working and I stayed with with. I did these shots, I don't know why. Now I'm unique and everybody knows me this way. I play very different, I don't give you a rhythm. It's hard to know when it started. I know I was young. I know I was playing like this and it was hard for the players. Now I like it more.
SI.com: Surely your coaches have tried to change the way you play to make it more conventional?
Niculescu: They did try. I tried so many times to play with more topspin but I came back to this way because I love it. I feel comfortable. I feel relaxed when I can hit many balls without any pressure. I feel better. It does not mean I don't work the topspin. I do it in practice and many situations, like when they put pressure at the net I'm trying to hit with topspin to make the passing shot.
I like it. Everybody knows my style. I'm not a new, fresh girl on the tour. I love it. You have to love it because you have to run a lot with the slice. Ok, you play different, but you have to run a lot because you don't hit many winners. So I try to do more with my backhand, try to play different, and fight for every ball. This I do. I fight a lot.
SI.com: I have seen you hit a topspin forehand from the baseline every once in a while. What percentage of the time to do you go to that shot in a match?
Niculescu: Yeah, I am hitting it. It depends on how I feel that day. Depends on if my slice is a bit high. If it's a bit high then I try to mix it up because I see it is not working that day. But usually my thing is to keep the ball low all the time and try to run the opponent, and then put a drop shot out suddenly of nowhere or go to the net out of nowhere. But I hit topspin. If you see players attack me, I try to play topspin. But most of the times slice [laughs]. And backhand topspin, obviously, otherwise I'd be Fabrice Santoro and no, Santoro is unique.
SI.com: Playing against you has to be frustrating. You don't give them any pace, you keep the ball low and you retrieve a lot of balls. Have you seen players get visibly frustrated or angry with the way you play?
Niculescu: I played against players—I don't want to name names—which suddenly started laughing during the match and started to hit slice forehands. They couldn't anymore. They were like "That's it, I can't." And they started to hit slice or dropshots or, I don't know. They were frustrated. They started to play weird. I was like "What's going on?" At one point at the net I hit the drop shot and then lobbed my opponent and suddenly she hit the ball somewhere else because she couldn't anymore. When I see frustration I try to play more aggressive.
SI.com: People might watch your game and think "Oh, she's only reacting. She's defensive." But you just said that your goal is to be "aggressive." What does that mean to you?
Niculescu: Come to the net. Hit a slice and come to the net. Go more with my backhand all over the court to open it up. From the return, hit a strong shot. This is for me aggressive [laughs]. I don't know for other people how it looks. If I do a slice and it's low and I can put it wherever I want on the court, this is for me, aggressive. If I put the ball wherever I want and then when I have a short ball I hit it strong with my backhand. This is what I want.
SI.com: Do you think you see the game differently from a tactical perspective compared to the other players?
Niculescu: I try to do the same thing they do. I try to move the opponent, but maybe in a different way than they do it. But again, it's not easy because I have to run a lot. It's not easy because sometimes it's a short ball and other players can hit the crap out of the ball. I have to hit a slice and come to the net and hit one more shot.
SI.com: The conditions in Indian Wells can be tricky for the power players. The desert air is thin and the ball can really fly. Do you like that or do you prefer slower conditions?
Niculescu: I like when the balls are flying. I don't like heavy balls. I like when I can put spin on the ball and hit my backhand.
SI.com: When you were younger and coming up through the junior ranks, were you ever embarrassed by your unorthodox style? Kids can be cruel.
Niculescu: I could not understand so much when I was young. I would tell my coach that the players want to feel the ball so I better hit with lift. And my coach would say hit the slice because that's how you play. But with practice partners, I want them to feel rhythm and if I hit with slice they don't want that. So not embarrassed, but like this. I was thinking for the practice partner. I would try and play normal for them.
SI.com: That's a great point about practice partners. Other players obviously want to get their rhythm in practice and exchange power shots. How do you go about finding people to practice with?
Niculescu: I do practice but I try to put myself down on the practice sign-up sheet as "looking" (meaning a player is looking for a practice partner) and if somebody wants to practice with me then it's ok. I don't want to pick someone to have to practice with me. But honestly I have rhythm. It's good to practice with me. But the only thing is they have to bend the knees all the time [laughs].
SI.com: So what's your favorite surface then? Grass?
Niculescu: No no, no grass.
SI.com: But the ball stays so low there.
Niculescu: I know but maybe I have to serve better. [My results] didn't come on the grass. I like hard court. Best results on hard court.
SI.com: What are your thoughts about facing Serena for the first time in your career on Friday?
Niculescu: For me I have to run a lot with this game. It's not easy for me. Sometimes with the powerful players it's very tough to control the game. If I feel pressure it's not easy. We'll see with Serena. Hopefully it will be a great match. I have to play my best tennis, otherwise it will not be easy. And to stay and have fun because it's not going to be easy. Center court at night, a lot of people, if I relax and I can play my game it's gonna look good. If I am tense, it's not going to look good. So this is the plan.