Bianca’s Rise

By Max Gao

Winter 2018/19

With a new career-high ranking of No. 68 in the world and now a first WTA title under her belt, Bianca Andreescu has her sights set on even more success and a top-50 ranking by the end of the year.

It was a brisk and early October morning when I found myself walking along the seemingly abandoned grounds of the Aviva Centre. Just a couple of months after more than 150,000 fans filed into the tennis centre to catch a glimpse of some of their favourite ATP players in action at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, the emptied grounds contained the remains of one of the most highly-anticipated weeks on the tennis calendar. Promotional tents and bleachers had been efficiently dismantled, banners and electronic scoreboards had been tucked away, and outdoor nets were just about ready to be taken down in light of the dropping temperatures.

With the remnants of the tournament lying around the relatively empty grounds that Friday morning, one might ask: What were you even doing there? The answer is quite simple: Training in the big seasonal bubble, that actually covers the main practice courts used during the Rogers Cup, was Bianca Andreescu, who had agreed to let me tag along for a couple of hours on one of her typical training days.

It had been a very up-and-down season for the 18-year-old from Mississauga. After a solid first half of the year, which saw her reach two ITF finals, clinch a decisive victory for Canada in the Fed Cup and nearly qualify for two Grand Slams, Andreescu was busy making last-minute preparations in Toronto before officially returning to competition from a back injury.

In a year that saw her continue to break new ground on the professional circuit, Andreescu’s progress was continuously stalled by intermittent injuries, culminating in a back injury that unfortunately sidelined her for most of the summer. “I injured [my back] in the gym. I was doing weights,” she recalled in an interview between her first practice and 90-minute lunch break that day. “The doctor scared me; he thought it was a herniated disk. I was only off for six weeks, but having a herniated disk takes—like, I have goosebumps. I’m so grateful that I didn’t have that.”

“So I got an MRI and it just showed a little bit of irritation in the disk. I tried to play the U.S. Open, and my pain started again. And since I was already there, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna play.’ But honestly, I didn’t think I should have played. It was hurting the whole match; I don’t know why I didn’t pull out. It’s hard when you’re on a Grand Slam stage, to pull out, so I just kept going. But I learned my lesson, so after that, I didn’t touch a racquet until my back was completely healed. So now it’s healed, and I’m really happy about that.”

Bianca seen here with André Labelle, Tennis Canada’s Head Coach at the Toronto Regional Training Centre.

With her sights set on a successful return to competition, Andreescu was hoping to finish another difficult year of firsts on a high note. In February, she returned to her family’s roots, with a Canadian flag on her back, to compete in a highly anticipated Fed Cup tie against Romania. While the Canadians were unable to come home with the win, it was a particularly special week for Andreescu, who got to compete in front of plenty of family and friends for the very first time. In addition, the 18-year-old said she finally got a chance to experience what it was like to be considered the “enemy” at a tie away from home, as she found some of the antics of the partisan crowd to be a little tiresome.

“But I guess, if I’m gonna be at that level, I got to kind of get used to it,” she said. “I don’t know how Roger Federer does it, to be honest, but that’s the lifestyle that I chose. But it was so fun. Even if the crowd wasn’t for me, I could still feel their love, so I guess it’s nice too, to have two countries supporting you.”

A month later, the Canadian teenager would make her first trip to Asia, playing in a series of ITF tournaments in Japan. It was a complete culture shock for Andreescu, who couldn’t help but marvel at how different things were on the other side of the world, even boiling down to their everyday interactions.

“It was an amazing experience; it was so different!” recalled the 18-year-old. “The life there is so different than the life anywhere else. I felt like the people in Japan were really conservative, like when you were walking down the street, they never look at you. They have a really good fashion sense, the food is incredible, and the people are so nice.”

Remarkably, Andreescu seemed to thrive in this new kind of atmosphere with Tennis Canada national coach Sylvain Bruneau, as she would make back-to-back finals at $25k events in Kofu and Kashiwa, losing at both events to the crafty Luksika Kumkhum.

“That (this trip) was actually my first-ever tour with Sylvain, so now I’ll be travelling with him a lot and André [Labelle],” she said. “I’ve practised with him a lot and I really like him, so he’s very motivational and he’s very passionate about what he does, so he really helped me in that sense.”

Bianca fist pumps after another winner at the Tevlin Challenger last November in Toronto.

“Playing back-to-back finals isn’t easy, especially even in $25,000’s, the level is so tough and especially in Asia—there are so many Asian players! Actually, in the final, I lost to the same player, Kumkhum. I have no idea why she played those tournaments [since she was already in the top 100], honestly, but it was fun—really fun.”

While she was able to beat some big hitters who turned out to be no match for her heavy game, Andreescu found herself up against a different kind of challenge in the form of the Thai No. 1. “I think it’s her double-handed forehand—it really throws me off!” she said, referring to the part of Kumkhum’s game that gave her the most grief. “You never know where she’s gonna hit. She just takes the pace and puts it wherever and she doesn’t miss. It’s so different compared to a lot of the players on tour now because I feel a lot of the girls just smack balls, like they don’t really think.”

A month later, the Mississauga native would reunite with her Fed Cup teammates in Montréal to take on Ukraine in a crucial World Group play-off tie. It was a crazy weekend that will be remembered for all the right and wrong reasons. After a successful week of training, Andreescu was getting ready to cheer on her compatriots when she found out she was going to act as a last-minute replacement for Françoise Abanda on Saturday afternoon.

“So, Françoise was supposed to play that singles match and then, 10 minutes before, I think she tripped during her warm-up. She hit her head, I think, on the court and got a little concussion or a whiplash,” she recalled. “So, then, literally 10 minutes in, they call me out of the locker room and they’re like, ‘You’re on!’ My heart was beating so fast, ’cause I didn’t even have clothes. I was unprepared because Françoise was totally fine in the morning, so I was like, ‘Okay, I’m not playing today.’ So, then, I had to borrow—I forgot whose clothes it was, but I had to borrow their clothes.”

Within a matter of minutes, Andreescu found herself on the court and preparing to face Lesia Tsurenko. The 18-year-old Canadian would start brilliantly, jumping out to a set and a break advantage before a flurry of nerves let the Ukrainian No. 1 back into the match.

“I was also very sore because I did a tough fitness session two days before that, which I don’t think was very smart to do because anything can happen, obviously, and the match was so enduring,” she recalled, grimacing. “I was running, like, back and forth, 10 shots because Tsurenko is an incredible player and it was tough. I guess all the nerves kicked in, emotions, and the soreness, and then I cramped.”

After losing nine games in a row to go down 4-0 in the decider, Andreescu went to hit a backhand when she suddenly collapsed, clutching at her left calf and being forced to retire not long thereafter. Thankfully, the teenager was able to give a thumbs up to the rest of the crowd while being carried off in a wheelchair. When asked what she learned from that unfortunate experience, Andreescu exclaimed, “I’m never doing that tough fitness session before a tie ever again!”

A day later, with heavy tape on her left calf, the Mississauga native would play a pivotal role in the decisive doubles rubber as she teamed up with Ottawa’s Gabriela Dabrowski to secure the massive win for Canada. “That Fed Cup tie was crazy. I mean, like, three of our players were injured, but we managed, we made it work,” she said. “I bounced back the day after I cramped and I felt really overwhelmed, like, I was playing with a Grand Slam champion, so it was an amazing experience for me. I actually learned a lot, so hopefully, I can play with her again.”

For the next few months, Andreescu would find herself at the mercy of small, nagging injuries that seemed to come at the most inopportune of times. At both the French Open and Wimbledon, the 18-year-old was able to battle through two rounds of qualifying before falling at the final hurdle. While she was admittedly frustrated with those results, Andreescu says it was still a dream come true to play in the qualifying draws of these events, but did cite a few injuries that made her recognize the importance of prioritizing her health.

“At the French and at Wimbledon, I think I won two rounds and all these little injuries came,” she revealed. “Like, at the French Open, I had a virus the day before, and then at Wimbledon, I had a toe infection, so it was all these little things coming up. I just have to take care of my health right now since I’ve been injured all this time.”

Now that she has reached the age of majority, one of the biggest professional changes for Andreescu has been that she is no longer under the ITF’s Age Eligibility Rule, a rule that restricts the number of tournaments a player can play while under the age of 18. While she used to view it as a blessing in disguise for her development, Andreescu feels that “it kind of throws off your rhythm.”

Tough off-court fitness sessions with Tennis Canada’s strength and conditioning coach Clément Gollietare have been an important part of Bianca’s success.

“Now I’m healthy, I’m ready to kick some asses..."

“You can’t play enough, all the tournaments you want to, so now that I’m free, obviously, I can play whatever I want. So, now, I have a more consistent schedule. I haven’t been playing a lot lately since I’ve been injured; I kind of feel like I’m still under that Age Eligibility Rule! But now since I’m healthy, I’m ready to kick some asses.”

After two kick-ass practices that day with coach André Labelle and Fed Cup captain Heidi El Tabakh, with a short lunch at the delicious La Fornarina Molisana Bakery in between, Andreescu ended her day with a tough fitness session with strength and conditioning coach Clément Golliet. In our two-minute walk from the indoor bubble to the gym, the 18-year-old quickly explained to me what she and her team were able to discover in the time that she took to recover from her back injury.

“My physio found that my core and my spine aren’t very stable, so I’m working a lot on strengthening my core and my inner core, and my glutes as well because that’s the foundation you need. And I honestly see a difference on the court because I feel like I’m hitting the ball 10 times harder than I was before, so I’m kind of glad that this happened. I always try to see the positive side of things and I believe that everything happens for a reason, so everything’s going well,” she said, smiling.

Last season, the WTA began to see a real changing of the guard as more and more teenagers began to break new ground on the main tour. By the end of the year, five of them had finished inside of the world’s top 100, with two of them—Ukraine’s Dayana Yastremska and Serbia’s Olga Danilovic—having won their first WTA titles in 2018. In her time away from the game, Andreescu kept a close eye on the girls she grew up competing against, saying that the emergence of a new generation has coincided with a number of new game styles that you are left to contend with.

“It’s really nice to see younger players getting to the top 100 because right now, age doesn’t matter. It’s honestly the work you put in that really matters, so it’s really nice to see that, and of course, it’s motivating for me. Even if I’m a bit older, I don’t want to see other players ahead of me!” she added, laughing.

“I know now that I haven’t defended my points as much—it’s mainly because I’ve been injured—so right now, my main focus is just to stay healthy, practice hard, and I know the results will come.” And man, did the results come thick and fast.

At the ASB Classic in Auckland where she made the final, as a qualifier, beating Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams (two former World No. 1s) on back-to-back nights.

When we spoke last October, Andreescu said all she wanted to do was to finish the year healthy and to win a couple of smaller titles to get back inside the world’s top 200. In her return to competition, the teenager has surpassed all expectations, playing with a renewed confidence to go 34-5 in singles action, dating back to last fall. But perhaps more famously, the 18-year-old is now known for making the first big splash of the 2019 tennis season at the ASB Classic in Auckland where she made the final, as a qualifier, after beating Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams—two former World No. 1s—on back-to-back nights.

Despite falling in three sets to No. 2 seed Julia Goerges in the final, Andreescu said, in the midsts of competing at the Australian Open just a few days later, “I haven’t had time to sit and reflect on it, because it was off to Melbourne and right back into qualifications for the Australian Open. I’m just very pleased with how I’m playing right now and hopefully I can keep the momentum going for a while.”

More than halfway across the world, Canadians have been buzzing about the seemingly meteoric rise of this 18-year-old phenom in the last few weeks, whose success has come as a pleasant surprise to those who have gotten the chance to know her since her junior days. From all the media attention to the support she has gotten from Canadians all around the world, Andreescu says, “It all just feels surreal. Based on what my parents have been telling me, it’s been incredible back home and I just want to let everyone know how much their support means to me.”

With this support, Andreescu has admittedly been able to play with a freedom that she never has before, thanks to her countless hours of preseason work. After qualifying and winning her first Grand Slam main-draw match at the Australian Open, the Canadian flew back to North America to play the WTA $125k event in Newport Beach, California. There, she would go on a tear to capture the biggest title of her young career with a 0-6, 6-4, 6-2 win over American Jessica Pegula. As a result, the teenager cemented her place as the new Canadian No. 1, surpassing former World No. 5 Eugenie Bouchard, whom she beat 6-2, 6-0 en route to the title.

“I have said for a couple of years now that my goal was to break into the top-100 ranking [which I have now accomplished],” she explained, when asked about what goals she has for 2019. “That goal is important to me because it means that I will not have to go through qualifications every tournament in order to play in the main draw.

“Playing qualifications every tournament, as I’m sure you understand, is physically demanding and therefore hard to sustain over the long run, so avoiding it is important to my long term development. I want to stay healthy, perfect my game and go up in the rankings.”

With a new career-high ranking of No. 68 in the world and now a first WTA title under her belt, Andreescu has her sights set on even more success and a top-50 ranking by the end of the year. The question is: How far can this Ontarian girl really go?