On Tennis: Bianca Andreescu Is Rising in the Tennis Rankings Ahead of Schedule
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Ranked No. 178 at the end of last season, the Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu set herself what seemed like an ambitious goal: Climb high enough in the rankings to be able to get into the main draw of this year’s second Grand Slam event, the French Open, in May.
Time for a new goal.
“So quickly, like everything is happening so quickly!” she exclaimed late Friday evening as she sat for an interview as a surprise finalist in the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
Her run here at age 18 as an unseeded wild card has been a revelation, featuring a 6-0, 6-1 demolition of the former No. 1 Garbiñe Muguruza in the quarterfinals and an edgy, grueling 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 victory over sixth-seeded Elina Svitolina in the semifinals on Friday.
She is the first wild card to reach the final of this top-tier women’s tournament. But her precocious success does not look like a fluke.
She has the varied all-court game and precise, athletic footwork to give tennis purists goose bumps. And her wide-eyed fighting spirit and open off-court personality should speak to a more general audience.
“She is playing with a combination of freedom and fearless determination; I hope she can hold on to this,” said Sven Groeneveld, the experienced Dutch coach who has helped Mary Pierce, Ana Ivanovic and most recently Maria Sharapova win major titles.
The next hurdle for Andreescu is a big one: eighth-seeded Angelique Kerber, the former No. 1 and three-time Grand Slam singles champion, in Sunday’s final.
“In the third set against Svitolina, I told myself, ‘I’m going to stick to my tactics and just go for it,’” Andreescu said. “So that’s what I did, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple of months. This is my first time actually on the tour playing against such high-level athletes, so I really have nothing to lose, and in the final as well I have nothing to lose. I’m just going to go out there and believe in myself because anything is possible.”
Andreescu, who was born to Romanian parents in the Toronto suburb Mississauga, is part of a new wave of gifted Canadian teenagers with flashy games, immigrant families and potential Grand Slam titles in their future.
It includes Denis Shapovalov, the 19-year-old with the leaping, one-handed backhand who is ranked No. 25 in the men’s game, and Felix Auger-Aliassime, 18, who turned heads here in Indian Wells by upsetting 10th-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round.
This comes after the Canadian Eugenie Bouchard broke into the top five at age 20 after a phenomenal 2014, including a run to the Wimbledon final. But Bouchard fell back quickly and is ranked 73rd at age 25. Though she has shown signs of resurgence, she is also a cautionary tale after struggling to manage new expectations, albeit with a more limited tennis skill set than Andreescu’s.
Tennis remains a brutally competitive individual sport, where health, confidence and emotional balance can prove precarious. Keeping Andreescu grounded as her prospects soar is her team’s goal, and her own goal, too.
“It’s easy to get distracted,” said her coach, Sylvain Bruneau, the head of women’s tennis at Tennis Canada. “But it’s going to be part of my work to make sure she stays in the moment.”
Andreescu does her part on that front by spending 15 minutes every morning doing what she calls “creative visualization,” imagining herself experiencing the situations she will face on court and off so she will be better equipped to manage them when they do come. Many elite athletes rely on visualization, including the world’s best women’s Alpine skier, Mikaela Shiffrin.
But Andreescu said it also had a calming effect.
“I used to do hours and hours of it, but I found that 15 minutes has really helped me, and it’s not time consuming at all,” she said. “It’s something I got online from a course. My mom introduced it to me when I was 13, and I have been doing it ever since.”
Andreescu’s parents moved to Canada in 1994. Her mother, Maria, has a master’s degree in economics; her father, Nicu, is a mechanical engineer.
“We arrived in Canada with two suitcases, and that’s all,” Nicu Andreescu told The Globe and Mail. “We had a great first impression when we arrived, having come from a former communist country. We wanted to go to Canada and start a new life and have a better future for any kids we might have.”
Bianca is their only child, and though she developed her game under the umbrella of Tennis Canada, the sport’s governing body, she said she took her first tennis lesson at age 7 in Romania, where her mother had moved back temporarily for a business opportunity.
That lesson was on clay, and though her family was soon reunited in Canada, Andreescu has retained strong ties to Romania. She speaks Romanian with her parents and attributes her combativeness on court to her “Romanian roots.”
“I think it’s from my Romanian roots,” she said. “I think every Romanian on tour has that. I think we are very passionate, and we leave it all out there. It’s all heart.”
She has shown plenty of grit in Indian Wells, rallying from 1-3 down in the first round to beat the Romanian player Irina-Camelia Begu, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-3, in the tournament’s second biggest show court.
“I actually thought I was going to lose my first round because I started off really slow,” she said. “I was really nervous. I have never played at Indian Wells before in such a big stadium.”
She also experienced back pain in that match, which has been a recurring problem and was still troubling her late Friday night as she repeatedly shifted position in her chair during an interview after the duel with Svitolina.
“I have a lot of weakness in my core, so that’s definitely something I’m improving on, and that’s definitely something that will help me in the future with other injuries,” said Andreescu, who has also missed significant court time with a stress fracture in her foot.
On Friday against Svitolina, she had to battle her way through leg cramps in the final set, in which she managed to convert her fourth match point — mixing drop shots with big, bold groundstrokes down the stretch.
Though tennis stars are trending taller, Andreescu is 5-foot-7. But she has powerful legs that allow her to generate tremendous pace when she needs it with both her forehand and her backhand and to leap high off the ground when serving. Her second serve, unlike many players of her size, is not a weakness.
But though she has abundant power, it is her ability to change pace that is her signature. She can generate acute angles with off-speed groundstrokes, looks comfortable in the forecourt and possesses a solid overhead, which she had to prove repeatedly against Svitolina, a premier defender.
She uses the whole canvas.
“I love that,” she said of the description. “No one has ever said that about my game before, but that definitely describes it, I think. I like to hit every shot in the book.”
She now has a 2-0 record against top-10 players after upsetting Caroline Wozniacki at a tournament in January in Auckland, New Zealand, where she also defeated Venus Williams.
The victory over Williams moved her to tears. “Venus is a walking, living, breathing legend,” Andreescu said.
But though the emotions were powerful again on Friday night, beating her elders is quickly becoming a habit. Andreescu is now guaranteed to be ranked in the top 35 on Monday and will break into the top 25 if she defeats Kerber. Instead of merely making it into the French Open draw, she now has a fine chance of being seeded.
“I do believe that I deserve to be here,” she said. “But I didn’t expect for it to come so quickly, but I mean, it’s better sooner than later, right? So I can’t complain. It’s just been crazy. I’m so grateful. I never want to take anything for granted.”