Tebbutt: Bianca is on the ball

The first time this tennis writer recalls seeing Bianca Andreescu was in the final of the 2015 Canadian under-18 championships on a day when she was basically on the undercard at the Ontario Racquet Club in Mississauga, Ont.

Most people, and no more than 40 people were present, were there to see the boys under-18 final between two players who were more highly-touted – Félix Auger-Aliassime, 15, and Denis Shapovalov, 16.

In a bit of an upset, the No. 2-seeded Shapovalov beat No. 1 Auger-Alassime 6-1, 6-2 in the boys final. That had followed the 15-year-old Andreescu’s victory over Vanessa Wong of Toronto, 16, by a 7-5, 3-6, 6-2 score in a three-hour girls final.

Wong, 20, is now playing college tennis at the University of Washington. Below is what she and Andreescu looked like after the 2015 final.

A few weeks earlier at a $25K event in Gatineau, Que., Andreescu had shown that at just 15 she could play at the pro level – beating three players ranked in the top-300 before losing the final to No. 155-ranked Alexa Glatch of the U.S.

In 2016, a stress fracture in her foot limited Andreescu to just seven tournaments, but she won her first pro event – a $25K ITF in Gatineau in August defeating American Elizabeth Halbauer in the final. Two months later she made the final of the $50K ITF in Saguenay, Que., losing to No. 111-ranked Catherine ‘Cici’ Bellis of the U.S.

Sadly, Glatch, now 29, has struggled for years with elbow and wrist injuries after a 2005 scooter accident and more recently with back problems. The same goes for the 20-year-old Bellis, who reached No. 38 in 2017 but has had to endure four wrist surgeries as she struggles to return to the tour.

In 2017, Andreescu won $25K ITF events in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Santa Margherita di Pula, Italy, and lost in the first round of French Open qualifying before qualifying at Wimbledon – her first Grand Slam event main draw. But she seemed over-awed in the first round at the All England Club (qualifying is played at Roehampton about 15 minutes away) and lost 6-4, 6-3 loss to Kristina Kucova Slovakia.

Then, given a wild card, she reached the quarter-finals of the WTA event in Washington, D.C., beating No. 83-ranked Camila Giorgi and No. 13 Kristina Mladenovic before losing to No. 102 Andrea Petkovic. In her first Rogers Cup main draw appearance in Toronto – two years before she would be the champion – she lost to No. 55 Timea Babos and then went out in the first round of US Open qualifying.

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

The match in 2017 that may have told most about Andreescu was her performance in Fed Cup against Kazakhstan in Montreal in April. At still 16, she lost to No. 31 Yulia Putintseva 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 and then beat No. 51 Yaroslava Shvedova 7-6(1), 6-4. As noted in Sunday’s blog after her US Open triumph, Louis Borfiga, Tennis Canada’s vice-president for elite athlete development, was so impressed as to declare, “she’s going to win a Grand Slam.”

This writer was equally impressed by her performance 10 months later in February, 2018, in the home of her ancestors, Romania. She lost on the opening day of a Fed Cup World Group II tie in a competitive 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-2 match against Irina-Camelia Begu, a power player who had a high ranking of No. 22 in 2016. Mainly it was obvious at the time that she belonged at that level and, at 17, was unfazed by all the distractions being in Romania again.

The 2018 year began inauspiciously as she had one of her worst losses – beaten 6-1, 6-1 by No. 190-ranked Alexandra Dulgheru, a 29-year-old Romanian veteran, in the first round of qualifying at the Australian Open. That was probably close to a career low point and then a back injury bothered her for much of the year – losing in the third round of qualifying at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon and the first round of the US Open qualies.

In the fall, after a 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 loss to No. 316-ranked veteran Quirine Lemoine of the Netherlands in the semi-finals of the $60K Tevlin Challenger in Toronto, she reached the semi-finals of the $25K ITF event in Lawrence, Kansas, and the finished the season on a high note, winning a $25K ITF tournament in Norman, Oklahoma.

In the November–December off-season in Florida, she was a dynamo, beating everyone in practice matches and that carried over into the new year as she reached the final the first week in Auckland, upsetting No. 3-ranked Caroline Wozniacki and No. 39 Venus Williams before losing 2-6, 7-5, 6-3 to No. 14 Julia Goerges.

The next week, after qualifying at the Aussie Open, she had a character-building, first-round victory. It’s never easy playing someone younger and Andreescu’s hard-fought win, on a hot day at Melbourne Park, over talented 16-year-old American Whitney Osuigwe, 7-6(1), 6-7(0), 6-3, required a gritty effort.

She lost a close 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 second round in the Aussie Open to world No. 12 Anastasija Sevastova but then began blazing her way through the rest of 2019. She won the WTA 125K in Newport Beach, California, before going to s’Hertogenbosch to score two wins in Canada’s Fed Cup victory over the Netherlands. You knew the tennis world had taken notice when Dutch captain Paul Haarhuis admitted he was conceding two singles wins to Andreescu and hoping his team could advance via victories in the other two singles and the doubles.

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

Andreescu’s last real loss of this year came in the semi-finals of the WTA International Series event in Acapulco on March 1 to Sofia Kenin of the U.S., who she would subsequently beat in both Miami and Toronto.

The rest is history – a unlikely and inspired triumph as a wild card at the prestigious BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, a fourth round at the Miami Open where she had to withdraw (an uncompleted match) with a two-millimetre tear in her right subscapularisshoulder muscle in the second set against Anett Kontaveit.

Then there was the one match at the French Open – a win over two days against lucky-loser Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic – before the shoulder forced her to withdraw. It was 133 days (19 weeks) from the match with Kontaveit in Miami until she played Rogers Cup – with just the Bouzkova first round in Paris in between. But she won six matches in Toronto and then seven at the US Open to complete an astounding run to make her the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title. Her 6-3, 7-5 victory over No. 8-ranked Serena Williams in the final made her 8-0 against top-10 opposition in 2019.

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

“These have been fantastic, magical moments,” coach Sylvain Bruneau said on Saturday speaking to French reporters shortly after his player’s US Open victory in a hostile, partisan environment in Arthur Ashe Stadium. “I’m really, really thrilled for Bianca – she really deserves it. There’s also a part of me that’s super-happy for Canadian tennis – we’re not like France and we haven’t had many really great moments. We have some good ones but not as many as France. The sport is still very young and is on the rise in Canada. Before being a coach, I’m a tennis fan and so happy for Canadian tennis that something like this can happen. It’s also important if it can inspire others to play the game. Of course Bianca is first for me, but that’s something that’s also really crucial.”

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

What’s the ceiling for Andreescu, who’s currently ranked No. 5, and is 1,666 points (6,501 to 4,835) behind leader Ashleigh Barty, in the Race to Shenzhen (China) for the year-end WTA Finals. It’s not completely beyond the realm of possibility that she could climb all the way to the top by the end of 2019.

French Open champion Barty has played all four Grand Slams this year, events with the max 2,000 points available to winner, while Andreescu really basically has been limited to just two – missing Wimbledon and pulling out after one round at Roland Garros.

She also has the best record of any woman on hard courts – leading second place Karolina Pliskova 31-28. With all the tournaments the rest of the year being on hard courts, that aligns well with her most productive surface.

Realistically, for her to end the season at No. 1 (No. 3 is a definite possibility) it would probably come down to the year-end WTA Finals from October 27 to November 3. With 1,500 points available for an undefeated champion, dramatic changes could come in ranking positions.

The WTA top spot may be a little far-fetched – but go back just one month to semi-finals day at Rogers Cup in Toronto with Andreescu playing Kenin and looking a little banged up physically. How likely was it then that she would win both Rogers Cup and the US Open in a matter of 28 days?

AUSSIE OPEN VOX POP WITH BIANCA

Before the Australian Open in January we asked Canadian players, including Bianca Andreescu, some fun questions about things distinctly Australian (for her answers click on the link above).

They included what’s the Aussie salute? (hint: it’s not a special salute for WW1 and WW2 veterans), what’s a stoush? (hint: it’s not a Greek salad), what’s a marsupial? (hint: think kangaroo) and what’s a witch’s hat? (hint: don’t think Halloween.) Finally, and this is our favourite, which of these is true about an Australian prime minister while he was in office?

  1. He won $500,000 in a national lottery and didn’t give anything to charity.
  2. He disappeared while swimming in the sea and was never seen again.
  3. He took $50,000 from party funds to bet on the Melbourne Cup horse race?

Correct Answer: In 1967 the Prime Minister of Australia – Harold Holt, 59 – disappeared while swimming in the sea in strong currents and his body was never recovered.

Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz

Source: Tennis Canada

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