Bianca Andreescu is one of tennis’ most appealing players – in large part because she lets you in. She’s transparent. Some players effectively hide their feelings. Their game faces are impenetrable masks, part of their weaponry. Fans and foes know little of what churns within.
With Bianca, we see it all. “She shows emotion,” noted Andy Roddick. “She draws you in. I love to watch her.” The Canadian will unleash an incredible squash shot winner and beam: “Did I really make that?” She’ll tumble in a heap after a botched volley and you feel her frustration. We’ve all been there. An ump will stick her with a wretched call and her eyes will well up with tears. She admits, “I’m definitely showing myself.” Her face is rich with expression. As for her body, Bianca confided, “I’m an octopus out there running side to side. I feel like I have eight legs.”
We see and feel the 20-year-old’s struggles. “I’m definitely a type of person to wear her emotions on her sleeve. I’m not afraid of that. To me, it’s more of a strength because I’m being who I am. I am who I am. That shows a lot of people they can do the same, because people say, if you show your emotions it’s a weakness. But to me it’s not. It’s how I express myself…It’s helped me win.”
Andreescu is a warrior. Few so young have faced such daunting setbacks. Both before and after her breakout 2019 year, when she won at Indian Wells and beat Serena both in Toronto and at the US Open, she was hobbled by one devastating injury after another: left adductor, stress fracture of her foot, back, rotator cuff, left knee.
“For sure. I was dealing with a lot the past couple of months, even 2020. It wasn’t that good of a year for me in many ways. I was super down on myself. I’m not gonna sit here and say, ‘Yeah, it was okay.’ It really wasn’t. What got me through were my family and friends…They really showed me the way and how this sport is really meant for me and how I have a bigger purpose in life, and I’ll be able to achieve that by playing this sport. That gives me motivation to continue and to have the same passion and love for the game.”
We asked, “What is your bigger purpose?” She replied, “One of them is to inspire and help others. Through tennis, I think I can do a lot of that.”
In the Miami Open final, she again inspired us, but time and circumstance caught up with battling Bibi. She had fought through a string of four three-set battles. In one set against Spaniard Sara Sorribes Torma she failed to hold her serve. She was down 2-4 in the third set against Maria Sakkari, but then pulled it out early in the morning.
But all this took its toll. In the final, she was never really in gear. Broken right out of the gate, she found herself down a set and a break, 6-3, 0-2. Then, yet again in her still brief career, her body gave way. Running to hit a rally forehand, her right ankle rolled. In a flash she was on the ground in pain. She shook her head in disbelief, the agony of the moment clear. Head down, chest heaving, her tears flowed. Her trainer saved her from herself and insisted she stop. She’d had a great tourney. The blues she felt in Australia were gone. But today there’d be no title – all was lost. Soon she’d be shaking Ash Barty’s hand and her team would be consoling the gutted star.
She told Barty that it was amazing to share the court with her and then, not surprisingly, she opened up and said, “For me, getting back on my feet wasn’t easy, but I continued to believe in myself and I never gave up. So, to everyone out there who is going through a tough time like me right now I just want to say, ‘Keep your head up and continue to believe in yourself.’”
Pro tennis is a fierce, competitive meritocracy filled with tough characters who bristle at every perceived slight. Ash Barty’s a player who is unique in so many ways. Bright and breezy, she often sees tennis as merely a game – no big deal.
But somehow, in covering her brilliant 5-year career, I’d never really connected with the No. 1 player in the world. She was a laid-back Aussie, I was a probing American reporter. By the time I asked her about her days of being a pro cricket player, she was burned out on the question. When I broached the topic of her Aboriginal heritage, she seemed to sigh, “Let’s not go there.”
Somehow I wanted to connect to a wonderful person who spoke eloquently on how her nation united during the wildfires that almost consumed Australia in 2020, and poignantly shared how until Christmas she’d be a nomad on the road, far from her Brisbane home.
When she was asked in Miami about the possibility of losing her spot, after 69 weeks atop the rankings, she spoke with a folksy ease filled with wisdom and emotional intelligence.
“It’s an amazing thing to be No. 1,” she began. “But I promise you, that’s not what makes me happy. Whether I’m No. 1 or No. 10 or anything doesn’t determine if I’m a happy person or a happy tennis player. I come out here and I just work hard. I try and do the best that I can. I know that if I do that I sleep well at night and the sun comes up tomorrow. I mean, of course, I want to try to do the best I can, but it’s not a distraction or a pressure in any way.”
I wasn’t surprised. Then I asked her, “Just what does make you a happy tennis player and a happy person?”
“I think it’s a very simple one. I try and do the best that I can every day in every aspect of my life, and grow and learn every day. Whether that’s knowledge from playing tennis or kind of world knowledge or whatever it is, I just want to improve as a person every day. Certainly tennis results are very low on the priority list for what does make me happy. Of course you go through highs and lows as an athlete, but ultimately I’m just trying to be the best that I can be and live my life to the fullest and learn from all my experiences and not sweat the small stuff. That’s a big one.”
“Beautiful,” I thought. And so had been Barty’s play through much of the Miami Open. So many of her points are delicious delights, filled with chess-like maneuvers, keen anticipation, savvy court positioning, disrupting changes of pace and death-by-a-thousand-cuts backhand slices that confound virtually all her foes.
So in her next press conference I asked her, “Your points are so wonderful. They have such variety. There is such clear decision-making – they’re special. Can you take us inside the art of the point, your mix of anticipation, vision and shot selection? What’s it like to be in the moment out there?”
She replied, “It’s very kind of you. Thank you. I know when I’m playing my best, it’s actually very quiet…[That’s] the word I’d use to describe it the most. I feel very clear with what decisions I want to make. But it also comes quite naturally. It turns into a little bit of ‘See ball, hit ball.’ The first decision, the first choice that I make in my head, I usually stick with my gut and go with that choice. At times I have to be able to adapt and adjust, but when I’m playing my very best, it’s me in control and being quite clear with the choices that I’m making.”
“What a complete answer,” I thought. Then again, Ash is the most complete player on the WTA tour. She’s got it all: serve, forehand, volley, problem-solving savvy, movement, focus and that slice backhand.
But of late, Barty’s had plenty of obstacles. She had a teary farewell from Australia, knowing she might not return until next Christmas. Then came a nightmare 50-hour trek to Miami where, in the first round, she found herself down match-point to the lowly Slovokian, No. 149 Kristina Kucova. She survived, improved and navigated her way through a murderer’s row of foes: Jelena Ostapenko, Victoria Azarenka, Aryna Sabalenka and Elina Svitolina, and then dominated Andreescu in the final before the Canadian withdrew.
It wasn’t an ideal ending for the Aussie. Ash said, “She’s had a rough trot…It’s heartbreaking anytime you see someone crippled with injury.” Then again, little has been ideal for Ash. But she just shrugs, doesn’t sweat the small stuff and goes on. While some questioned that she remained No. 1 despite her long layoff she countered, “I never have to prove anything to anyone.” When others noted that only the greatest women of our sport – the Williams sisters, Graf, Seles and Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario – have defended their Miami title, she said, “It’s extremely humbling. I shouldn’t belong with that list.”
Then again, when it comes to a list of humble, under-appreciated WTA champions, few would be listed above the pride of Brisbane, the quiet dominator, Ash Barty.