Wwhen asked how she feels about being back on the track, Bianca Andreescu’s voice sounds with the rehearsed precision of someone who knew this question was coming. The 22-year-old Canadian tennis player is feeling great. She feels ready, focused, fresh. She knows she withdrew from the Cincinnati Western & Southern Open on short notice earlier this month, but it has helped her prepare to play the US Open. She was able to train and regroup, and at the end of the day she is very happy that she made the decision. Concerning the other decision, which is more complex and painful, and which affects the numbers and rankings that count in a professional tennis player’s life – the decision to take six months off in December 2021 – lets them fly.
“I literally wanted to quit this sport. It was so bad,” Andreescu says on the phone, the day before she goes to New York for the US Open. “For the first three months I was gone, I didn’t want to hear about tennis, or think about tennis, or anything close to it. And then, after three months, I realized, ‘Oh shit, I really miss this. And I need it in my life.’”
The way she tells it wasn’t there only one thing that caused Andreescu to say goodbye. She didn’t play at all in 2020. Fresh on the heels of her 2019 US Open victory, her first Grand Slam title at age 19, she tore the meniscus in her knee. She withdrew from the 2020 Australian Open to tend to the injury. Two months later, the world closed and professional tours were suspended. Although she originally planned to play the rescheduled 2020 French Open, she withdrew before the tournament to focus on her training and her health. She entered 2021 “very, very hungry and very, very motivated to be back”, but in January, in transit to Melbourne for the Australian Open, her coach was one of the unlucky souls who tested positive for Covid after their flight landed from Abu Dhabi. Andreescu, along with 72 other players, was locked up in their hotel rooms for 14 days. No practice on the track. No outside air. The tournament started and Andreescu lost in the first round.
Traveling for the following 2021 season began, and with it a sort of existential loneliness.
“I have not been able to see my parents. I couldn’t see my friends. In the tournaments you just go from the hotel to the courts, from the hotel to the courts. You can’t leave. You cannot do otherwise.”
Along the way, her beloved grandmother contracted the virus and spent a month in the ICU. She stopped working with her former coach. She felt the aches and pains of the everyday injuries of life on tour, micro-traumas to the joints and tendons. And then, in April 2021, after withdrawing from a tournament in Miami due to a foot injury, she tested positive for Covid and had to withdraw from the Madrid Open.
“I’d say this was when I was just starting to go downhill.”
Andreescu continued to test positive for a month and was unable to play during that time. Months passed and the slog of travel, competition and isolation continued. Finally, October rolled around and the originally postponed Indian Wells tournament got underway. The 2020 iteration never happened and since winning the event in 2019, Andreescu has arrived as the defending champion.
“Honestly, at the time it was all a bit sad. I was placed in the best house for the tournament because I was technically the defending champion, even though it was a year and a half later. And I just sit there, in this beautiful house, looking around at this beautiful place, and I keep thinking about how I should be so happy and so grateful to be there, how I had won the tournament before. And I just hated everything.”
I ask if she’s ever considered quitting altogether.
“Well, yeah, for a split second I think, I just don’t want to go on like this. How will it ever get better? It was so great in 2019, and now I feel that way. But my soul knew otherwise. It knew this is something meant for me. I’m here to stay.”
Among the things that made her healthy again – sleeping, her loved ones, traveling without a tennis racket, The Bachelorette (“I freaking love it”), volunteering – Andreescu published a children’s book in June. She and her team had a good idea when the pandemic kicked in, but she didn’t want to publish it until it was an opportune time.
Bibi’s Got Game: A Tale of Tennis, Meditation and a Dog Named Coco tells the story of a young tennis player who learns to cope with an injury and takes care of herself during her spare time. If the story sounds familiar, it’s because it’s supposed to be.
“I really had to dig deep into my childhood, which felt like some kind of therapy,” she said. “And I got to see how my team and I worked on it together and how the illustrations came to life. I’m really thankful for how it turned out. And for all the love I get for it.” At book signings, young children have come to Andreescu to tell her how much they liked it and that they picked up a racket as a result.
Andreescu picked up her own racket when she was 7. She can’t remember having a book like she wrote, but, “Maybe they existed and I just didn’t discover them.” She wrote it for a younger audience, but notes that those over 40 have told her they learned something from it, too.
“It makes me so happy. I wanted to make something universal. If I can, you know, just give someone a glimpse of how I went through what I went through when I was younger, and it helps them, that was the whole point of this.
Andreescu will face France’s Harmony Tan on Monday in the first round of the US Open, the grand slam tournament where she lost only once in 11 career matches.
“Of course I want to win the tournament. But there’s something else that comes with it, and that’s the process of it all. To enjoy out there. To prepare as best I can. Not to let it define me, even – especially? – the mistakes.”