There was a moment during last year’s U.S. Open when the momentum changed and the generations may have made a hand off. Though Canada’s Bianca Andreescu was leading in the first set, 5 games to 3, she was behind 30–40 with Serena Williams serving, and the American had an edge and fight to that did not bode well for her teenage opponent.
Williams got her first serve in, but Andreescu’s powerful forehand forced Williams to stretch for a weak return. Andreescu ran to the net and drove another forehand to Williams’ backhand. Williams was on the ropes, while Andreescu easily volleyed and won the point. Andreescu met and surpassed Williams’ trademark aggression. From that point on, the match was never in doubt.
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Andreescu is one of the rarest and most exotic of that lofty and prestigious club known as the elite professional athlete — a 19-year-old giant killer who has stared into the eyes of the most intimidating women in tennis and then whooped a shot past them like they were immobile, marble versions of themselves. She has a forehand so powerful that even a defensive genius like David Ferrer would be puffing hard to return. Consider her drop shot: it floats just above the tape, and then lands like a whisper. It seems more like a well-trained butterfly than a tennis shot. For her opponents, it is equally elusive.
Andreescu is also rare in another sense. She may be one of the most seldom seen Top 5 superstars in the history of the game. Her appearances at major events are few and far between. Glimpses of her wild and exciting game are cause for minor celebration simply because it seems like so much time passes between them. It’s true that she seemed to be everywhere in 2019, beginning with a run to the finals of the Auckland Open. She was eliminated in the second round of the Australian, but then made the semifinals at the Mexican. She won her first WTA title at Indian Wells (more on that in a bit) and reached the fourth round at Miami before a shoulder injury caused a mid-season vanishing act. She rebounded with a win at her home tournament, the Canadian Open, where she dispatched No. 5 Kiki Bertens and No. 3 Karolina Plisková before beating Serena Williams in the final.
The topper came when Andreescu, ranked 152nd at the end of 2018, dismantled competitors such as Carolina Wozniacki and Belinda Bencic. Once again, in the finals, she faced Williams. Defying any thoughts that she was a one-hit wonder, she won in straight sets.
Andreescu lost a close match to Naomi Osaka at the China Open in October and withdrew from the WTA Finals at the end of the year due to a knee injury, which kept her out of Auckland and the Australian Open to start this year. She told her Twitter followers: “My rehab is going well, I feel better and stronger every day but after discussing it with my team and following the recommendation of the doctors, the Australian Open is unfortunately too soon in my rehab process and I sadly will not be able to play in it this year.”
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ZUMA PRESS / ALMAY STOCK PHOTO
Bianca Andreescu defeated Germany’s Angelique Kerber to claim the women’s singles title at the BNP Paribas Open in 2019.
It’s worrisome, but not because the injury (reportedly a torn meniscus) could end her career — even in a worst-case scenario, surgery usually means in a three-month layoff — but because of how frequently the young star vanishes. Before her remarkable run in 2019, she’d been absent from WTA tour-level matches for 14 months. Since turning pro in 2015, she’d overcame physical challenges, most notably a back injury in 2018 that precluded her from the French, Canadian, and U.S. opens.
When Andreescu spoke to Palm Springs Life in the fall, she had not yet incurred the knee injury in Shenzhen. She sounded like the accumulation of injuries was not oppressive and didn’t think her back problem was important. “I went through way more serious injuries than [my back],” she said. “In 2016, I had a stress fracture in my foot. I was off for six months, and then in 2017, I was having on–and–off problems with my groin. Then, in 2018, came the back injury. It derailed me in some ways, but I think it also helped me. I took a step back and started focusing on what I should improve — like my diet, the shoes I wear, the exercises I do, and tournament scheduling. After that, I did really well at the end of 2018.”
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The late David Foster Wallace, a junior tennis player before becoming a writer, wrote an essay in 1992 entitled “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” a critique of Austin’s memoir that he dismissed for not addressing head on the derailment of her career by injury and misfortune. The California native known for her baseline game, two-handed backhand, and almost supernatural accuracy turned professional when she was 15 and won her first pro title the same month in Germany. She reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1979, but lost to Martina Navratilova. She made up for it a couple months later, beating Chris Evert at the U.S. Open finals when she was 16 years and 9 months old. Though she briefly attained the No. 1 world ranking twice in 1980, she lost twice in the semifinals of the Grand Slam events she played that year. She fought her way back in 1981 and at the U.S. Open beat Navratilova for her second singles title. But recurring back injuries, particularly a debilitating sciatica, kept her from fulfilling predictions that she would become one of the greatest players of her generation. Twice she attempted comebacks in the late 1980 and early ’90s, but they were unsuccessful. The earlier comeback was halted by a near fatal car accident. Inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame at 29, Austin retired two years later in 1994. She played the best tennis she would ever play before she turned 20.
For those who witnessed the tragedy of Tracy Austin, there lingers a spectator’s version of PTSD, triggered when players come undone way too early. It doesn’t matter whether a misfortune of their own making falls them. They suffer; the sport suffers; and fans suffer. There’s a list: Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Mardy Fish.
Evert has expressed concern about the number of injuries Andreescu has piled up in such a short time, but she admires the energy and the young star’s style of play. “She plays in-your-face tennis. I love that aggressiveness.”
Andreescu says that her aggression on the court is simply a manifestation of the self-confidence instilled in her at an early age by her parents. “My mom has always told me to dream big in order to get big. [She taught me] to always believe in myself.”
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY WOMENS TENNIS ASSOCIATION
“She plays in-your-face tennis. I love that aggressiveness.”
— Chris Evert
Her parents, Nicu and Maria, emigrated from their native Romania to Canada when her father, a mechanical engineer, was offered a position in Ontario. She was born in Mississauga on June 16, 2000. Though obviously gifted athletically, she did not pick up a tennis racquet until the age of 7, after her parents had moved home for several years. Gabriel Hristache, a friend of her father’s, gave her some coaching, though Andreescu recalls not being particularly drawn to the sport as a child. She recalls being involved in a lot of sports — gymnastics, soccer, swimming, skating — and also picked up ballet while in Romania. “I was kind of doing everything, but when I moved back to Canada, I got into Tennis Canada when I was 10. After that, I quit every other sport because I felt like I was best at [tennis].”
She credits her years in the “old country” with connecting her to her Romanian heritage, which she says is integral to her accomplishments. “I feel like Eastern Europeans in general are a very passionate people and very courageous. You can see that in a lot of Romanian athletes who have competed in professional sports. I think that’s what I get from my Romanian background: my never-give-up attitude.”
After only a couple years of dedicating herself to the sport, she achieved considerable success by winning Les Petits As, a renowned French 14–and–under tournament, and later the same year defeating older and more experienced girls at Florida’s Orange Bowl for 16–and–under players. The next year, she became the first player since Mary Joe Fernández in 1984 to win back-to-back titles at the Orange Bowl.
“It derailed me in some ways, but I think it has also helped me.”
Andreescu continued to compete in junior events, especially at the Grand Slam tournaments, after turning pro and joining the ITF Women’s Circuit in 2015. But the injuries held her back. After being sidelined for six months in 2016, she fought back and won matches against higher–ranked opponents at the end of the year. In early 2017, she won two ITF titles that positioned her among the WTA’s top 200. It was another 14 months before she played in a WTA–level tournament, but it was the beginning of a run that few in the tennis world will soon forget.
Andreescu entered the Auckland Open through qualifying matches, not an auspicious beginning. Nevertheless, she defeated top seed Wozniacki in straight sets in the second round, Venus Williams in three sets after narrowly losing the first game, and Hsieh Su-Wei in the semifinals before losing the title to Julia Görges in three sets. “It was amazing,” she says, laughing. “I kept telling my fitness trainer to pinch me because I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
Qualifying for the Australian Open, she won her first match in a Slam before a second-round exit. Several weeks later, she won a WTA 125K title in Newport Beach to improve her ranking from 152 to 68. A semifinal appearance at the Telcel Mexican Open cemented her status as a comer.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY BNP PARIBAS OPEN
Andreescu defeated Kerber again in Miami but withdrew in the fourth round due to a shoulder injury.
Still, no one saw her coming at the 2019 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. She had never qualified for the event; it was her first visit to the desert. “I loved it,” she said. “It’s definitely in my top three favorite tournaments. I love California in general and I’ve always wanted to play the tournament. I remember watching Naomi [Osaka] win it. She gave me a lot of inspiration because of the great year she had.”
Most seasoned observers were laying their bets at even odds that Osaka would defend her title. Though her momentum appeared to dip at the French and Wimbledon, she won the U.S. Open and began the year by reaching the finals of the Australian, where she beat Petra Kvitová and became the first woman to win consecutive Grand Slams since Serena Williams in 2015. It seemed that all Osaka had to do was keep her confidence high and she’d repeat as BNP Paribas champion.
Indeed, Osaka looked impressive in the opening rounds. Though she lost to Belinda Bencic in the fourth round, it wasn’t a jaw-dropping defeat. The 22-year-old Swiss player has twice been ranked as high as No. 7 in the world and is often mentioned as one of several players to watch in a post-Williams Sisters World (should one ever occur). But while people were possibly losing sleep over Osaka, the Canadian spectators waving their maple leaves from the stands were witnessing the emergence of a talent worthy of replacing that country’s golden girl, Eugenie Brouchard, whose early promise seems to have been thrown off course by a nasty head wound she suffered after slipping in the bathroom at the 2015 U.S. Open. Andreescu, with her dominant forehand, was consistently throwing top 20 players off their game and out of the tournament. Elina Svitlona (No. 6) and Angelique Kerber (No. 8) went down in the semis and final, respectively, on Andreescu’s march to her first Premier event podium. No one seemed to have any idea how to play her.
Andreescu says it goes back to her earliest memories of learning to compete. “Even before I started watching tennis, I was always different than my opponents because I would always change the rhythm,” she says. “Maybe it started because I would get bored out there. I found out that I have pretty good hands and that it was actually disrupting my opponents’ rhythm. And then I saw that I was actually winning matches with it. I kept improving and found it was working at this level, too.”
In a conversation later at the U.S. Open, tennis commentators Mary Carrillo and Darren Cahill compared Andreescu’s style of play to Belgian great Kim Clijsters. “That’s incredible because she was my idol growing up, and my coach [Sylvain Bruneau] always says I remind him of her,” she says, fairly gushing at the comparison. “I looked up to her because of her game style. She was so different than everyone else. She had an overall game. She was very solid mentally, physically, and tactically, too.”
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY BNP PARIBAS OPEN
Andreescu missed the Australian Open but hopes to come back and defend her Indian Wells title in March.
Of course, Andreescu also has another secret weapon in her arsenal: Coco, a 7-pound poodle. “I grew up with her since I was 6. She was like my sister because I was an only child. Sometimes when I look at my box and see Coco, I relax completely. I think it really helps me.”
Andreescu made a strong run at her next tournament, the Miami Open, where for the second match in a row she trounced Angelique Kerber, whose unsportsmanlike comments at the net, calling Andreescu “a drama queen,” did not win her many new fans. The “drama” was Andreescu’s complaint about a sore shoulder, which proved serious enough that she had to withdraw in the fourth round. She tried to come back for the French Open, but it was too early. It’s about the time the first Tracy Austin warnings were whispered.
Andreescu put doubts to rest when at the Canadian Open, where she took down Kiki Bertens and Karolina Plísková en route to meeting up with Serena Williams in the final. Andreescu admits to excruciating pressure. “I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” she said. “I was so nervous before the match that I wanted to cry.” Not only was she in a position to be the first Canadian woman to win the title since 1969, but she’d have to do it against one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. Still, she blocked it out as soon as she stepped on the court, and when play began, she quickly picked up a game on her opponent. And then the shocker: Trailing 3–1, Williams retired because of back spasms. Andreescu recalled she was “100 percent disappointed” in winning the title in that fashion. “All I can say about that is what she did wasn’t easy, and I wanted to comfort her as much as I could because I’ve been through a lot of injuries in my short career. What she’s doing right now is so incredible. She’s 38 and still playing on the tour, so a pat on the back for her.”
Andreescu’s embrace of Williams and concern for her pain brought every Canadian in the stadium to their feet.
Tennis fans (and Andreescu) were deflated because they would not witness an epic match between a rising star and one whose brightest days might be behind her. But the disappointment was short lived. A rested and prepared Andreescu showed up in Flushing Meadows ready to take on all comers. She beat Wozniacki again in straights (which makes you wonder if part of the reason the Dane hung up her racquet was that she thought to herself, “If I can’t beat this teenager in three tries, maybe it’s time to retire.”)
Andreescu had a much tougher semifinal match against the underrated Bencic, but won 7-6, 7-5, prompting ESPN’s Pam Shriver to joke to the Canadian during the postgame interview, “I don’t think I’ve heard of you.”
And like it had been scripted for television, the final pitted Andreescu against a recovered Serena Williams, whose steely, pre-game glare said “Nothing is stopping me from my 24th Slam title.”
Andreescu says it didn’t get to her. “Every time she steps on the court, she’s already won a match because her opponents feel intimidated. I made sure that when I stepped on the court, I would be the one [who] was intimidating her. I did that by getting to every ball and making her work for every point because she likes short points. I like to make my opponents work for every point and I’m really glad my plan actually worked out really well that day.”
Yes, it did, to the tune of a 6–3, 7–5 win for her first Grand Slam title.
And, in one of those “It can only happen at Arthur Ashe Stadium” moments, the raucous New York crowd, totally partisan for Williams from the first point to the last, thoroughly embraced the new star.
The remainder of the year was a bit rocky. Well, let’s face it: Bianca Andreescu crashed against the rocks.
And so the question as this magazine goes to press is whether the young Canadian champion will be in Indian Wells. Will an appearance mean that her body has healed enough, not only to defend her title here, but also to carry her through the season and reveal her potential to be a multi-Grand Slam champion? Or, if she doesn’t play the BNP Paribas Open this month, will there be cause to wonder if the light that burns twice as bright will burn half as long?
Even if her body does not heal, her heart is clearly willing.