Bianca Andreescu: ‘I literally wanted to quit this sport. But my soul knew differently’

When asked how she feels about being back on court, Bianca Andreescu’s voice rings with the rehearsed precision of someone who knew this question was coming. The 22-year-old Canadian tennis player feels great. She feels ready, focused, fresh. She knows she pulled out of the Cincinnati Western & Southern Open on short notice earlier this month, but it’s helped her get ready to play the US Open. She was able to train, and regroup, and at the end of the day, she’s very glad she made the decision. As for the other decision, the one more complex, and painful, and consequential to the numbers and rankings that count in the life of a professional tennis player – the decision to take six months off in December of 2021 – she lets it fly.

“I literally wanted to quit this sport. It was so bad,” Andreescu tells the Guardian over the phone, the day before she heads to New York for the US Open. “I didn’t want to hear about tennis, or think about tennis, or anything even close to it for the first three months I was away. And then, after three months, I realized, ‘Oh shit, I really do miss this. And I need it in my life.’”

The way she tells it, there wasn’t just one thing that caused Andreescu to take her leave. She didn’t play at all in 2020. Fresh on the heels of her 2019 US Open victory, her first grand slam title at the age of 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 shut down and pro tours were suspended. Though she’d originally planned to play the rescheduled 2020 French Open, she withdrew ahead of the tournament to focus on her training and her health. She went into 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 unfortunate souls who tested positive for Covid after their flight landed from Abu Dhabi. Andreescu, along with 72 other players, were sent into hard lockdown in their hotel rooms for 14 days. No on-court practice. No outside air. The tournament began, and Andreescu lost in the first round.

Obviously, I want to win the tournament. But there’s something else that goes along with that too, which is the process of it all. To be able to enjoy myself

Travel for the ensuing 2021 season began, and with it a kind of existential loneliness.

“I wasn’t able to see my parents. I wasn’t able to see my friends. At the tournaments you just go from the hotel to the courts, the hotel to the courts. You can’t leave. You can’t do anything else.”

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 of 2021, after she’d withdrawn from a tournament in Miami for a foot injury, she tested positive for Covid and had to pull out of the Madrid Open.

“I would say this is when I just started going 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. Eventually, October rolled around and the originally postponed Indian Wells tournament was afoot. The 2020 iteration never happened, and, since she’d won the event in 2019, Andreescu arrived as the defending champion.

“Honestly, at that point, it was all just kind of sad. I’d been put up in the most beautiful house for the tournament because I was technically the defending champion, even though it was a year and a half later. And I’m just sitting 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’d won the tournament before. And I just hated everything.”

I ask if she ever considered quitting outright.

“Well, yeah, for a split second I’m thinking, I just don’t want to continue like this. How is it ever going to get better? It was so great in 2019, and now I’m feeling like this. But my soul knew differently. It knew that this is something that’s meant for me. I’m here to stay.”

Bianca Andreescu serves to Danielle Collins during the second round of the Madrid Open in May. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Among other things that nursed her back to health – sleep, her loved ones, traveling sans tennis racquet, The Bachelorette (“I freaking love it”), volunteer work – Andreescu published a children’s book in June. She and her team had been ideating on it right as the pandemic was seeping in but she didn’t want to publish it until it was an appropriate time.

Bibi’s Got Game: A Story about Tennis, Meditation and a Dog Named Coco tells the story of a young tennis player who learns to cope with an injury and take care of herself during her time off from playing. If the story sounds familiar, that’s because it’s supposed to.

“I really got to dig deep into my childhood, which felt like a kind of therapy,” she said. “And I got to see how my team and I all worked on it together, and how the illustrations came to life. I’m really, really grateful for how it turned out. And for all the love that I’m getting for it.” At book signings, young children have come up to Andreescu to tell her how much they liked it, and how they’ve picked up a racquet because of it.

Andreescu picked up her own racquet when she was 7. She doesn’t remember having a book like the one she wrote, but, “Maybe they existed and I just didn’t discover them.” She wrote it for a younger audience but notes that people in their 40s have told her they’ve gotten something out of it, too.

“It makes me so happy. I wanted to make something universal. If I can, you know, just give someone a little glimpse of how I went through what I went through at my younger age, and it helps them, then that was the whole purpose 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’s only lost once in 11 career matches.

“Obviously, I want to win the tournament. But there’s something else that goes along with that too, which is the process of it all. To be able to enjoy myself out there. To prepare in the best ways that I can. To not let any of it define me, even – especially? – the mistakes.”

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