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Maple Leap: How Bianca Andreescu turned a hockey nation tennis-mad

Maple Leap: How Bianca Andreescu turned a hockey nation tennis-mad

This teenager take matters into her own hands and may become a model for how the game is played everywhere.

Early last year, Bianca Andreescu traveled to The Netherlands to play a Fed Cup tie for her native Canada. At the time, she was a tour neophyte who had just cracked the Top 100. But a month earlier she had beaten Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki on her way to the final in Auckland, a run that made the tennis world sit up and take notice. This powerful athlete and savvy competitor, everyone agreed, was on her way to bigger things, and higher rankings, very soon.

While the sport’s media recognized Andreescu’s talent, they didn’t know much about her. Who, for instance, was her coach? According to the Fed Cup’s website at the time, it was former pro Nathalie Tauziat, but their partnership had ended a year earlier. Asked about it in a press conference, Andreescu corrected the record.

“Right now, it’s Sylvain Bruneau,” she said, naming the Canadian coach she has worked with for the past year. “I think on Wikipedia it’s correct. They took out Nathalie’s name.” 

Then, with a smile, Andreescu made a confession.

“I actually changed that,” she said. “It’s so easy to change things on Wikipedia. And my height, too. It said I was 5’5”; I am not 5’5”. I changed it to 5’7”.”

This story can serve as a metaphor for Andreescu’s first year on tour, when her game grew more rapidly, and she had success come more easily, than anyone expected. At the start of the 2019 season, she was ranked No. 152; by year’s end, she was No. 5.

Along with winning Indian Wells and Toronto—no Canadian had won the Rogers Cup since 1969—Andreescu became the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title, and she did it in suitably grand style, by defeating Serena Williams in the US Open final. A few days later, Andreescu found herself standing next to Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, as he chanted “She the North!”—her new catchphrase—along with thousands of their compatriots. 

It wasn’t just Andreescu’s meteoric rise that was stunning; it was how she went about making it happen. She won with power, with touch, with surprising spins and angles, and sudden injections of pace. According to The New Yorker, watching her was like watching pitcher Clayton Kershaw out-think an opposing batter. For the year, Andreescu went 8–3 against Top 10 players, and from the start, she never seemed to doubt that she belonged on the same court with them.

“She’s one of the few players who can play offense and defense; it’s that fantastic mix that has worked so well for her,” says three-time Grand Slam champion Lindsay Davenport. “The finishing power, but also the ability to hang in rallies and give her opponents different looks.”

The most meaningful assessment may have come from Serena, who already sees something of herself in this brazen teen.

“I think we’re really similar in terms of we both are fighters and we both are really intense,” Williams said after their US Open final. “…she goes out and she plays hard.”

“It’s a really special feeling,” Andreescu says of hearing those words from Serena. “Growing up, I watched her all the time and looked up to her so much. For her to say those things about me is honestly surreal.”

Andreescu has an impressive variety of weapons, but none are more important than her fearlessness and finishing power. (Getty Images)

Yet like any ambitious young athlete, Andreescu isn’t just in it for the praise. For her, facing someone like Serena is a means to an end.

“I’m really lucky to be in a position where I can play against her and other amazing players,” Andreescu says, “because that’s what’s going to make me the best player I can be.”

The aftershocks from Andreescu’s season are still being felt across Canada. Last year, she became the first tennis player to win the nation’s Athlete of the Year award.

“Coverage has been off the charts,” says Michael Downey, president of Tennis Canada. “This is a hockey country, and Bianca was the most followed Canadian athlete in 2019. 

“People dressed up as her for Halloween, and some even went as her mother,” Downey added, referencing Maria Andreescu, whose voluminous hair and pitter-pat clapping style made her a social-media phenomenon during the US Open.

“There were 100,000 kids playing tennis in Canada a few years ago. This summer, there were 200,000. That’s a huge jump, and we can credit a lot of it to her.”

Andreescu, the first player born in this century to win a Grand Slam title, has returned tennis to the days of the teenage prodigy, when unstoppable forces like Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati rocketed up the rankings. What explains her seemingly inexplicable success?

Her mother and father aren’t world-class athletes, tennis coaches, or stereotypically pushy parents. If anything, the family’s story is very normal, in a multi-cultural, can-do Canadian way. Andreescu’s father, Nicu, is an engineer, and Maria is a compliance officer at an investment firm. In 1994, they left their native Romania and settled in the Toronto suburbs—carrying, as Andreescu’s grandfather, Grigore, told The Globe and Mail, “one bag and a frying pan.”

"My mom's a straight G. I’ll never be that cool," Andreescu tweeted after watching a viral video of her mother's muted celebration during the 2019 US Open final. (Getty Images)

The Andreescus channeled their only child’s rambunctious energy into sports, and introduced her to tennis during an extended stay in Romania when she was 7. By 10, back in Toronto, she was working with coaches from Tennis Canada. But rather than move to Montreal to practice at the national training center, Andreescu remained at home. Today, rather than quit their day jobs so they can hover over their daughter full time, Nicu and Maria have kept their old lives and routines intact. 

“They’ve been great tennis parents, because they’ve been extremely supportive of her,” coach Bruneau said. “Even with me I felt they haven’t been intrusive at all. They’ve been giving us a lot of space.

“They’re a very close family, and I think that’s good, actually, for her.” 

Despite the hands-off approach, Maria helped give Bianca what she refers to as her “secret weapon”: the power of visualization. When Bianca was 12, Maria introduced her to meditation; today, Bianca starts each day with 15 minutes of it, “to get in tune with my body, my mind.”

“You use your mind to visualize what you want to accomplish,” Andreescu says. “I think the mental part is the most important because it controls your whole body, right?”

As for Andreescu’s father, he had trouble believing how rapid his daughter’s progress would be. When Bianca was 12, Nicu, who played some tennis in high school, bet her $50 that he could beat her in tennis. He never saw the money again.

“I creamed him,” Bianca told The Globe and Mail with a grin.

“Did we expect all this from her so soon? Probably not,” Downey says. “But coaches here always saw a mentally strong young player, who could lift her game when she needed to.”

“It’s been a crazy ride, truly a Cinderella story,” Andreescu said after beating Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina and Angelique Kerber to win her first WTA title at Indian Wells last March. She won her second title in August, at the Rogers Cup, defeating Kiki Bertens, Karolina Pliskova, Sofia Kenin and Serena Williams along the way. (Getty Images)

Louis Borfiga, Tennis Canada’s junior-development mastermind, was an early and ardent believer in Andreescu.

“I remember Bianca beating [Yaroslava] Shvedova in 2017, and Borfiga saying, ‘She’s going to win a Grand Slam,’” says Canadian journalist Tom Tebbutt. “That was uncharacteristic, because he’s normally very mild-mannered. But he saw something in her.”

Now that Borfiga’s seemingly wild prediction has come true, he sees even more in Andreescu.

“What’s going to happen in tennis a is about Bianca,” Borfiga told Tebbutt and other reporters at the US Open. “In other words, a player with variety in her game, but also capable of hitting the ball with extreme power. That’s how we have to train the young kids today.”

First, Andreescu has to tend to her own future. The new decade got off to an inauspicious start when she withdrew from the Australian Open with a left knee injury that flared up at the 2019 WTA Finals in Shenzhen. She wasn't able to return to action before the coronavirus forced the tours to postpone tournaments through June 7. This isn’t the first time Andreescu's body has betrayed her. The current No. 6 has experienced back problems, and she was sidelined by a shoulder issue last spring. By now, she understands this probably won’t be the last of her physical woes.

“There are definitely things I can fix to try to avoid them,” says Andreescu, who travels with a trainer. “But the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that injuries come with being a professional athlete. It’s how you learn from them that helps to push you through the tough times. I’m listening to my body more.”

If there’s a worry for Andreescu’s future, it’s her history with injuries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her background in meditation, Andreescu has accepted they come with the territory of being an athlete by trade. (Getty Images)

If her brief history in the sport is a guide, the resilient Canadian will bounce back quickly.

“I wouldn’t say that my preparation has changed too much,” Andreescu says, as she contemplates 2020. “I had a pretty incredible season last year thanks to my pre-season, so I think I’ll want to keep a similar regimen. 

“There are a couple of differences, like aiming to be No. 1 in the world this year, but I still want to approach every practice and match as a chance to be better and stronger.”

At 19, Andreescu already knows how to be a champion, and expects nothing less from herself. The No. 1 ranking is in her sights, and why wouldn’t it be? 

She also knows that while her body may be vulnerable, her real power lies in her mind. Like that error-riddled Wikipedia page from last year, there’s nothing Andreescu has encountered so far that she can’t fix herself.