Two years ago, Bianca Andreescu seemed like she had the tennis world in the palm of her hand. Throughout the 2019 stagione, she emerged at the top table of the women’s tour in an entirely unique set of circumstances. So many times she would travel to a tournament and struggle with injury along the way, yet despite each new setback, somehow her forward momentum never halted.
In her first full year on the WTA at 18, Andreescu won the Indian Wells WTA 1000 tournament as a wildcard before suffering from a five-month shoulder injury. On her return, Andreescu clinched the Rogers Cup, her home event, in her first tournament back without any match practice beforehand. In her second, she upset Serena Williams in the US Open final to clinch her first grand slam.
Of all the memories she created during that startling breakthrough season, two qualities come to mind. The first is the way she carries herself across the court and the sheer energy that bursts from her whenever she competes. Andreescu is chaotic on the court and almost always the main character. She is loud and intense, disgusted by anything less than perfection. She couldn’t care less about how her opponents react to her presence. And they sure do react.
When her game is in full flow, it is also not difficult to see why Andreescu’s standards are so high. She is strong and solidly built, armed with a destructive forehand that can pierce every defence in the world, excellent athleticism and one of the best returns in the game. But what elevates her game is her innate court sense. She weaves in drop shots, wicked angles and abrupt changes of pace and trajectory from her vast arsenal of shots. Andreescu is as adept at neutralising opponents by a million paper cuts as she is at hitting them clean off the court.
That breakout season came to an abrupt end. After the 2019 US Open, Andreescu tore her meniscus in her knee in her opening match at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen against Simona Halep, and retired from her following match that week. She would not compete again for 15 mesi.
At the beginning of this year, as Andreescu prepared for her return to competition, she spoke with Il Observer from her hotel room in Australia and was full of hope and joy about returning to the tour. This has been a year of learning just how difficult this sport can be.
After being one of the players forced into hard quarantine in Melbourne, Andreescu lost emphatically in the second round of the Australian Open. When she surfaced again at the Miami Open, she made clear progress before it ended in a familiar outcome. After moving to the final where she faced Ashleigh Barty, she tweaked her ankle and eventually retired from the match.
The struggles only continued. En route to Europe two months later, Andreescu tested positive for Covid-19 and was forced to withdraw from the Madrid Open and Rome. Once she finally emerged from isolation, her inexperience caught up with her on the natural surfaces.
Still figuring out how to effectively play on clay and grass, she lost in the first rounds of both the French Open and Wimbledon. She quickly learnt how to put on a brave face in defeat: “I might cry a lot tonight,” said Andreescu after losing in Paris. “But tomorrow is a new day.”
Injury remains her great foe. Every time she slips or moves in a way that is not entirely fluid, it is difficult not to wince at the possibility that she may suffer yet another ruinous setback. Back in Canada this month to defend her title in Montreal, Andreescu hurt her toe while leading No 22 Ons Jabeur by a set, and slowly faded away. The pain was still present when she suffered a straight sets defeat in the opening round of the following tournament in Cincinnati.
And so as she returns to the US Open for the first time since her triumph in 2019, Andreescu stands on precarious ground. She has not beaten a top-50 player since March. Her win-loss record for the year is just 13-9. Her ranking of seven is an illusion. Due to the pandemic ranking freeze, Andreescu’s 2019 US Open points will only fall off her ranking after this tournament. In reality, she is 35th in the WTA Race rankings.
Ancora, this sport is not easy. Losses are inevitable and learning curves are part of what moulds great players. Although she is determined to register great results immediately, for Andreescu the past months have underlined the need for her to think long-term instead of allowing short-term results to dominate her thoughts.
“I have to tell myself I’m not the same person back then as I am now,” she said on Friday. “Taking so much time off, I feel like it helped me in many ways. But then getting into that competitive mindset, it brought me back a little bit. I feel like that’s also a reason why I haven’t had the results I wanted. But I’m really trying to focus on process and long-term because I’m also only 21.”
Andreescu says that she is in a good place now. In the time since she left for Europe, she has split with her longtime coach, Sylvain Bruneau, due to his inability to travel with her full-time, and has enlisted the veteran Sven Groeneveld as Bruneau’s replacement. This will be their first slam tournament together. Her recent defeats have taught her to live a more balanced life instead of being consumed with tennis. She says that she is healthy.
Next week, Andreescu will return to competition at the US Open after missing last year’s edition. She is the sixth seed but, in verità, she is far from the list of top favourites and is out of the immediate spotlight. Perhaps she will like it there.