Bianca Andreescu’s long break from tennis served her well

ROME – Bianca Andreescu’s first Italian Open had just understandably stopped in the quarter-finals against Iga Swiatek, a steamroller disguised as a tennis star.

But even after failing to stop first-placed Swiatek from extending her winning streak to 26 games, Andreescu still sat in the Roman sun with a broad smile on her face.

Defeat at this stage does not have the same tough side as defeat at other stages of his career.

“Honestly, I’m just excited to go back out there and play her again,” Andreescu said in an interview following his defeat, 7-6 (2), 6-0, on Friday. “If I look at myself a year ago, there has been so much progress in how I’m handling the return to tour and my wins and losses. I’m just super motivated. I want to get back on the pitch right now and work to be more aggressive or something like that. “

Andreescu, a 21-year-old Canadian from suburban Toronto, remains one of the great talent in tennis, which he made clear in 2019 by win the US Open women’s singles title on her first attempt, defeating Serena Williams in two sets.

Classified at no. 4 in the following month will be no. 72 on Monday, but still has that fascinating blend of finesse and punch and a rare ability to shift gears and turn. She also has powerful legs that are reminiscent of her model Kim Clijsters which help her cover the pitch explosively and generate exceptional pace despite the lack of leverage from taller players (she is 5-foot-6).

“There is no blow he can’t hit,” said Daniela Hantuchová, an analyst and former top five who commented on the sidelines on Friday as Andreescu and Swiatek toured for the first time.

“In that first set, Bianca was by no means far from her highest level,” said Hantuchová. “For me it was the best tennis set in the women’s tournament so far. In a way, it almost looks like a mirror against a mirror. They have a different technique, but mentally they have their routines in between and tactically they know exactly what they are trying to do out there. Both are great athletes, and during the match I kept saying that I hope to see this match more often. It would be a nice rivalry to have. “

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

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

“After Indian Wells, I decided, like, I don’t want to play anymore,” he said. “I don’t know if I was acting dramatically, but that’s just how I felt at the time. But now, I’m just super happy I didn’t stop, because having that free time has really made me appreciate my time on the pitch more now, because it was a decision that came from me. It wasn’t anything external like injury or disease or anything. It was my calling, so I felt very empowered, and this was a huge step to take more control over my life and just not put pressure on myself and have fun.

“During that hiatus, I basically did everything I love to do and told myself that if I come back, I want to be in the same mindset. Obviously, I want to be competitive and angry if I lose, for example, but I also want to feel that I have fun on the pitch and that I am more motivated after a loss instead of crawling into my bed and crying all night, which I was doing last year.

Andreescu, like his fellow tennis star Noemi Osaka and some other prominent athletes of their generation, was open about the mental health challenges they face. Three tournaments from his latest comeback, Andreescu is clearly in a better position and will head to the French Open with clay-court momentum that suits his varied play.

She came to the interview on Friday with no body tape or ice packs in tow.

“Nothing,” he said. “I’m just super thankful especially for my body, because it was a big deal. But I see myself as a great player on clay if I keep doing well, working hard in training and believing in myself ”.

The challenge on tour – a 10-month test of stamina and resilience – is to maintain health and enthusiasm.

Her team, led by veteran manager Sven Groeneveld, is focused on keeping her fresh and, according to Andreescu, also on seeing her bluffs.

“They can call me out without it putting me on the defensive, and I think that really helps,” he said.

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

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

Andreescu, as the first and only Canadian single-handed Grand Slam champion, has already written a book about her titled “Bianca Andreescu: She the North”, released in 2019, and has written one herself, an illustrated book published on 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 has just begun.

He has a glowing match, as was clear to Hantuchová and anyone else who attended the opening set on Friday before Swiatek got into a march that Andreescu wasn’t ready to match, at least not yet.

“He clearly gained some confidence from that first set,” said Andreescu. “I was trying to be more aggressive, but at least in the second set I was missing by a few centimeters. But he has a streak of 25 consecutive games, well, do it now 26, for a reason. “