"Pressure is a privilege."
Four words immortalized by tennis legend, Billie Jean King, and inscribed on a plaque as athletes enter Arthur Ashe Court during the US Open. For Bianca Andreescu, the 19-year-old Mississauga native who defeated Serena Williams during the 2019 US Open women’s final and first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title, those words could not be more true.
In an arena filled with an audience rooting for Williams to win her 24th Grand Slam singles title (which would have tied her with Margaret Court for the most in tennis history), Andreescu had to confront incredible pressure to not only overcome the cacophony of the crowd, but also make history and cement herself amongst a pantheon of elite athletes as one of the best in the world. She was a force to be reckoned with and ultimately harnessed that pressure to achieve victory.
As they say, pressure makes diamonds. And Andreescu shone bright on that day.
“Bianca plays well under pressure. She goes out and plays hard"
“Bianca plays well under pressure. She goes out and plays hard,” Williams said. “She does what she does best and that’s hitting winners.”
In the time leading up to her Grand Slam victory, Andreescu was characterized by her prowess on the court, as well as her integrity and character as an athlete. As the CEO of Tennis Canada, Michael Downey witnessed Andreescu’s growing talent, but it was her spirit that set her apart from so many other players.
In 2018, Andreescu was generating buzz for herself on the tennis circuit, but she was still wasn’t quite a household name. She had missed much of the season with a bad back, and was still only 18 years old. During a 2019 campaign aimed at raising funds to help nurture the next generation of high-performance Canadian tennis players, Downey asked Andreescu for a favour and wanted to use her likeness in the advertising that would support it. Andreescu agreed to let them use her image, but wanted to do more. She learned the game through the Tennis Canada program and wanted to give back, an opportunity that became possible after securing the USD$1.3 million purse from Indian Wells in 2019.
Andreescu, the athlete of the moment, not only donated CAD$50,000 but also convinced Felix Auger Aliassime, her counterpart on the men’s side, to do the same. Tennis has been Andreescu’s Canadian experience since she grew up on its courts and she’s spoken about her parents arriving in Canada from Romania with nothing but two suitcases. By the time Tennis Canada called, Andreescu had found her calling in sport. Tennis is where she found fearlessness. It’s how she learned heart. It’s the place she found home.
That summer, they raised CAD$210,000 in their fundraising efforts. Andreescu, before she was a household name and before taking the US Open, was almost single-handedly responsible for nearly half of the purse. Andreescu was entering the limelight. She was generous — and she was hellbent that she was going to stay.
“I’m feeling really confident in my game and looking forward to what I can do here,” said Andreescu in New York on the Sunday night before her first match of the US Open. Over the phone, Andreescu sounds calm and happy. She sounds ready to enjoy her time under the sport’s brightest lights. She says responding to the moment has been the defining point of her career.
“The first time I actually thought I could do things in the sport was in 2013 because that was the first time after a match that I was asked for an autograph and to be interviewed, and I realized I enjoyed that. I told myself then and there, I want to be at the top of my sport,” Andreescu said. “Confidence is as important as anything in tennis — you get on the big stage and you either love it or you don’t, and when people were starting to know my name I felt comfortable. I have no hesitation and that’s been a big part of my game.”
Andreescu’s game could do for Canadian tennis what the Toronto Raptors have done for basketball in Canada. Before making history at the US Open, she was coming off a preposterous 2019 season, in which Andreescu already shocked the world once by beating Williams at the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Most tennis fans would agree that Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time, and though their match would end in disqualification — a back injury forced Williams to retire after the first set, down 1-3 — it was the first time a Canadian took the title on home soil since 1969. Andreescu had previously won in Indian Wells and was the runner-up in Auckland, major tournaments that proved she was the real deal. But her journey hasn’t been without struggle.
A natural talent, she won Les Petits As in 2014, the world’s most prestigious tournament for players 14-and-under, but lost in the first round at both Wimbledon and the French Open the very next year as she aged into the sport. One step forward, one step back is how she learned how to fight. It’s grit that has been the defining characteristic of her journey.
Any professional athlete experiences a seesaw beginning, it’s how they learn their discipline. But Andreescu grew into herself as she adapted to a country in which she still speaks Romanian with her parents at home. An only child, she told the New York Times that her Romanian upbringing is part of her spirit. She’s Canadian, but like most children of immigrants to this country, she’s proud of where she’s from. It makes her who she is.
“We are very passionate, and we leave it all out there,” she said. “It’s all heart.”
C H A M P I O N
Heart has become synonymous with the young fighter and her donation to Tennis Canada would only be just the start. At the US Open, Andreescu was told by a reporter that she had dropped into the Women’s Tennis Association’s (WTA) top ten ranking (a point-based system upon which a player’s seeds are determined, earned at tournaments across the previous 52 weeks). Her response was priceless. “What? You’re kidding me,” she told the gathered press in a clip that went viral, showcasing her earnestness, youth, and unadulterated glee. “Oh man, give me a sec… Wow.”
By the end of the US Open, Andreescu ranked fifth in the world, a jaw-dropping jump from being ranked 152nd at the end of the previous season.
However, it was the way that she comforted Williams after her Rogers Cup withdrawal — the way she crossed the court and gave her weeping hero a hug — that showed the world that Andreescu had class.
“This is how women should treat each other,” wrote King on Twitter. The winner of 39 Grand Slam titles, King is tennis’s great moral compass. Though she beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes, she’s perhaps even more well-known for her sportsmanship and advocacy. She is her sports éminence grise. “Thank you for all that you’ve done,” Andreescu wrote to King in response.
In Downey’s opinion, Andreescu is changing how the world sees Canadian women in sport.
“I think fans were starstruck by the fact that they saw history in the making at the Rogers Cup and Bianca showed a maturity beyond her age,” says Downey, who’s been in professional tennis since 2004. “There’s no doubt that she’s stolen the hearts of our country and the shocking thing is that she’s only 19 — there’s no ceiling on what her potential could be.”
Andreescu would never put a ceiling on her potential. She’s dealt with rotator cuff injuries and back problems, serious injuries that have affected her game and forced her to miss this year’s Wimbledon and withdraw from the French Open. But she came back in New York and Toronto, exhibiting a nature that separates the talented from those ready to sacrifice everything to be amongst the greatest of all-time. She says that she’s learned how to chalk up every setback as a learning experience. She’s spoken often about visualization, spending 15 minutes off the court to anticipate what the match might bring. It’s mind control, she says, that has led to her success. At a press conference in Toronto after her US Open win, Andreescu was funny and poised, talking about Drake and Jimmy Fallon. But she also made it clear that she was eager to get back to work.
“There’s always room for improvement. I’m going to keep working on my game,” she said, mentioning dreams of both the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and being number one in the world. “I’ve accomplished a lot in this past year and now I believe I can do more — I want to create history.”
History has been made by the young Canadian on the court and there’s nothing she can’t do with a racket. She has a powerful forehand and a deadly serve, she’s good at the net and can hit deep backhands with punishing strength. Experts have credited her overall game and great court instincts, her ability to know both where a shot is coming and how to work the angles in returning slices, lobs or drop shots, while also hitting with tremendous power. She hits big, serves big, and has a strong second serve and endurance to outlast even the toughest opponents.
“I don’t think there’s any shot she can’t hit,” says Downey. She’s beaten bigger players with overhead smashes and she’s played deep in the backcourt and matched blast for blast with the strongest players in the world. And yet Venus Williams is 39. Simona Halep, her role model and the most famous Romanian player on the tour, is 28. Andreescu has proven that she can play with anybody, and she’s just getting started. Seizing the moment, she says, is what’s responsible for her stunning success.
“I think 90 percent of the game is mental."
“That’s what I’ve been working on through my whole career,” she says. “Having to quit only toughens you up if you look at it right. A setback is a test to stay optimistic and while I sat on my butt for three months, hoping I could carry my win into Miami, the French Open and Wimbledon, sadly I couldn’t, so during that time I looked at other aspects of my life and tried to improve.”
It’s a mature athlete who, forced out by injury at the peak of their playing, finds a silver lining in the forced break. By resting, improving her visualization techniques, eating right, and studying the game, she was able to return to the sport mentally tougher. Tennis gave Andreescu a platform for Canada around the world and her improvements have made history. It helped usher in the next generation of young female athletes benefitting from a new dawn of support and engagement in the world of female sports. We saw it when Naomi Osaka comforted 15-year-old Coco Gauff at the Open. Sports are changing and while women compete every bit as hard as men do, the best of them bring a different compassion to the proceedings. They remind us all how to live.
Its effect is an overdue phenomenon, from Penny Oleksiak at the Olympics to the US Women’s Soccer team. There’s still pay discrepancies, idiot announcers, and television coverage more apt to show men’s athletics than their often more popular female counterparts. But a change is in the air and Andreescu is leading the charge.
“I want to be the best that I can be and make everybody proud. [I want to] show people what I can do,” she says. During the Rogers Cup, many of her matches went three sets, and she was on the court longer than anyone else, even though most followers of the sport worried that her injuries would return. Instead, she has 48 match wins on the season, 18 of them coming in three sets.
At New York’s US Open, Andreescu was stunning. She proved her win at the Rogers Cup was no fluke and played with ferocity, cunning, and tact well beyond her years. Perhaps there were people still stunned in the tennis world. Andreescu, however, believes there’s nothing that she can’t do.
“What clicked is having zero expectations. I think if you expect nothing and take what comes your way, good things can happen,” she says. “The mental side kicks in, and that’s when I have the advantage. It’s only good vibes I’m feeling and when you’re strong mentally, you can conquer any obstacle that comes your way.”