Sport

Bianca Andreescu’s Extended Break from Tennis Has Served Her Well

ROME — Bianca Andreescu’s first Italian Open had just come to an understandable halt in the quarterfinals against Iga Swiatek, a steamroller disguised as a tennis star.

But even after failing to prevent the top-ranked Swiatek from extending her winning streak to 26 matches, Andreescu still took a seat in the Roman sunshine with a broad smile on her face.

Defeat at this stage does not have the same hard edge that defeat has had in other phases of her career.

“Honestly, I’m just fired up to get back out there and play her again,” Andreescu said in an interview after her loss, 7-6 (2), 6-0, on Friday. “If I look at myself a year ago, there’s just been so much progress in the way I’m handling being back on tour and my wins and my losses. I’m just super motivated. I want to go back on court right now and work on being more aggressive or whatnot.”

Andreescu, a 21-year-old Canadian from the Toronto suburbs, remains one of the great talents in tennis, which she made abundantly clear in 2019 by winning the U.S. Open women’s singles title in her first attempt, defeating Serena Williams in straight sets.

Ranked a career-high No. 4 in the month that followed, she will be No. 72 on Monday but still has that beguiling blend of finesse and punch and a rare ability to shift gears and spins. She also has powerful legs reminiscent of her role model Kim Clijsters that help her cover the court explosively and generate big-time pace despite lacking the leverage of taller players (she is 5-foot-6).

“There’s no shot she cannot hit,” said Daniela Hantuchová, an analyst and former top five player who was commentating courtside on Friday as Andreescu and Swiatek played on tour for the first time.

“In that first set, Bianca was not far from her top level at all,” Hantuchová said. “For me, that was the best set of tennis in the women’s tournament so far. In a way, it almost feels like a mirror against a mirror. They have different technique, but they have their routines between the points mentally, and tactically they know exactly what they are trying to do out there. Both are great athletes, and I kept saying during the match that I hope we see this matchup more often. It would be a wonderful rivalry to have.”

But until now, Andreescu, unlike the 20-year-old Swiatek, has been only a part-time threat. There have been a series of injuries, a career-long concern, and more recently the malaise that moved her to take her most-recent extended break after the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in October 2021, before returning for a tournament in Stuttgart last month.

She used her time off tour to do community service, volunteering in a children’s hospital and a shelter for victims of domestic violence. She went to a wellness retreat in Costa Rica and focused on developing more mental tools to complement the visualization and meditation work that she, like Swiatek, started during her junior career and has cited as one of the keys to her precocious, if intermittent, success.

“After Indian Wells, I legit, like, didn’t want to play anymore,” she said. “I don’t know if I was being dramatic, but that’s just how I was feeling in the moment. But now, I’m just super happy that I didn’t stop, because having that time off really made me appreciate my time on court more now, because that was a decision that came from me. It wasn’t anything external like injuries or an illness or whatever. It was my call, and so I felt very empowered, and that was a big step in me taking more control over my life and just not putting pressure on myself and just enjoying myself.

“During that break, I did basically everything I love to do, and I told myself if I do come back, I want to be in that same mind-set. Obviously, I want to be competitive and upset if I lose for instance, but I want to also feel that I enjoy myself on court and that I’m more motivated after a loss instead of just like crawling in my bed and just like crying all night, which I was doing last year.”

Andreescu, like her fellow tennis star Naomi Osaka and some other prominent athletes of their generation, has been open about the mental-health challenges she faces. Three tournaments into her latest comeback, Andreescu is clearly in a better place and will head into the French Open with momentum on the red clay that suits her varied game.

She arrived at Friday’s interview with no tape on her body or ice packs in tow.

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m just super grateful for my body especially, because that’s been a huge problem. But I do see myself being a great clay-court player if I just continue doing well and working hard in practice and believing in myself.”

The challenge on tour — a 10-month test of endurance and resilience — is to maintain the health and enthusiasm.

Her team, headed by the veteran coach Sven Groeneveld, is focused on keeping her fresh and, according to Andreescu, also on calling her bluffs.

“They can call me out without me becoming defensive, and I think that really helps,” she said.

Groeneveld, whose highest-profile pupil in recent years was the now-retired Maria Sharapova, declined to comment on Andreescu because they are “still early” in their relationship. But he has a systematic approach to his work, sitting courtside during matches and noting the score point by point along with the key patterns of play and other details, including a player’s lapses in concentration.

“He could write like 10 books with all the notes he’s taking. It’s hilarious,” Andreescu said.

Andreescu, as Canada’s first and only Grand Slam singles champion, has already had a book written about her called “Bianca Andreescu: She the North,” published in 2019, and has written one herself, a picture book published last year titled “Bibi’s Got Game: A Story about Tennis, Meditation and a Dog Named Coco.”

But with the surprise retirement of the reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion Ashleigh Barty earlier this season, the leaders of the women’s game can only hope that Andreescu’s tennis story is just beginning.

She has an incandescent game as was clear to Hantuchová and anyone else who watched the opening set on Friday before Swiatek kicked into a gear that Andreescu was not ready to match, at least not yet.

“She clearly gained some confidence from that first set,” Andreescu said. “I was trying to be more aggressive, but at least in the second set I was missing by inches. But she’s on a 25-match streak, well make that 26 now, for a reason.”

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