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Sports Audacious Canadian teen Bianca Andreescu sending shock waves through world of women’s tennis

Bianca Andreescu obliterated Garbine Muguruza, a two-time Grand Slam champion, in the quarter-finals, 6-0, 6-1.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Heading into the quarter-finals at Indian Wells, Calif., last week, there was a sense that Bianca Andreescu had already left her mark at the tournament. The Canadian teenager, a wild-card entry into the BNP Paribas Open, turned heads as she stormed through the first four rounds, dropping only a single set. She’d knocked off a pair of top-50 players along the way. Everyone was talking about her, from the media to the fans to her counterparts on both the men’s and women’s tours.

Her task in the quarters on Wednesday, however, was decidedly more difficult: Getting past Spain’s Garbine Muguruza, a two-time Grand Slam champion, in a top-tier tournament. No one would have batted an eye if Andreescu had gone down in straight sets. As she had been all week, and pretty much all season, she was up against a more experienced player of higher ranking.

But what the audacious Canadian did sent shock waves through the tennis world. As the youngest quarter-finalist there in a decade, she obliterated Muguruza 6-0, 6-1 in a near-perfect match that took just 52 minutes.

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“I just went out there, went for it,” Andreescu said afterward. “I didn’t focus on who was on the other side. It really helped me.”

The way she pulled off that signature victory served notice to her WTA Tour competitors. She showcased a unique mix of spin and pace while putting Muguruza off kilter. Her shot placement was precise, she sliced, her point construction appeared next-level and her use of deftly placed drop shots was ruthlessly effective.

On Friday, Andreescu did it again, advancing to the final with a 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 victory over No. 6 seed Elina Svitolina. On Sunday, she beat eighth-seeded German Angelique Kerber 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 to claim the title.

Andreescu began 2019 ranked No. 152 in the world, and has shot up more than 100 spots, playing to an astonishing 26-3 record in combined WTA and Fed Cup play this year, making headlines almost weekly. She’s top four on Tour when it comes to main draw victories this year, and her list of accomplishments is dizzying. When the next WTA rankings come out Monday, Andreescu will have vaulted into the top 40.

She reached the ASB Classic final in Auckland, beating former world No. 1s Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams on back-to-back nights. She won her first WTA title at a US$125,000 Challenger in Newport Beach, Calif. She then made her second WTA semi-final in Acapulco, which earned her a wild card to Indian Wells. The only other wild cards to make the semis at Indian Wells were Serena Williams and Martina Hingis.

The burst of attention is reminiscent of when other young Canadians first broke onto the scene in recent years, becoming the talk of the tennis world, such as Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov and Eugenie Bouchard.

Andreescu’s promising play prompts the same questions asked about her compatriots. Can she maintain the level needed for consistent success in this unforgiving individual sport? How will she handle the attention and the pressure? Will she be the first Canadian to earn a Grand Slam singles title?

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The 18-year-old oozed confidence during a midwinter interview in Toronto. She was kicking back with her parents and her dog inside the Tennis Canada office at Aviva Centre, where she’ll be a headliner at this summer’s Rogers Cup. Her dark, bobbed hair was styled, while makeup and long lashes highlighted her brown eyes. She wore a casual Nike outfit – navy pants and a fitted black top with rose-gold lettering and maroon sneakers. Her parents settled onto the couch beside her, grinning at each other, while her tiny toy poodle Coco, wearing a fuzzy pink sweater, wriggled across their laps. For a fleeting moment as she snuggled the little brown dog, the woman currently captivating the tennis world actually acted like a kid.

“I can remember watching other Canadians make their big breakouts and saying, ‘Hey Mom, when is it going to happen for me?’ Remember that mom?” says Andreescu, as her mother nods with a smile. “Hey, believe me, I know not every day is going to be rainbows and butterflies like this. There are ups and downs; that’s part of tennis. But I’m up for the challenge.”

The 5-foot-7 teenager is unique in countless ways, from the variety in her game to her punishing use of drop shots, or the spin she can put on the ball. She wears a coiled hair elastic around her bicep, causing the overjoyed company that makes them to send her a box. She rescues stray dogs off the street while travelling to Romania, and finds them homes. Romanian fans also support her, waving their flags at her matches and speaking with her in Romanian afterward.

As with several other Canadian tennis stars, Andreescu has roots outside Canada. Her parents immigrated to Mississauga in 1994 from Romania, where her father, Nicu, was a mechanical engineer, and her mother, Maria, had completed a master's degree in economics.

“We arrived in Canada with two suitcases and that’s all,” Andreescu’s father says. “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.”

Their only child was born in Mississauga in 2000. They lived there until Maria moved back to Romania for a brief 2½-year stretch to open a trucking business, bringing her daughter, then 6, along. Nicu stayed in Toronto to work as a tooling engineer at an automotive company. Andreescu had spoken a little Romanian with her parents in Canada, but moving to Romania pushed the youngster to speak and write in the language daily in school.

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Her parents recall a highly active little girl who was relentlessly on the move, running, jumping and showing off on the monkey bars. They put her in activities where she could burn energy, such as soccer, skating, swimming, dance and karate.

It was in Romania that she first took up tennis at the age of 7, working with a professional coach. They went back and forth to Canada in the summers – playing tennis there, too. By the time she was 9, the family decided to sell the business and live in Canada for good.

The now well-spoken Andreescu says switching between languages and countries was sometimes challenging as a young child. She recalls a time when a friend in Toronto invited her to hang out, and she panicked and said no, worried that the English words wouldn’t come back to her.

Tennis proved to be a nice bridge between life in the two countries. When in Canada, she played at the Ontario Racquet Club in Mississauga. By the age of 10, she was good enough to join Tennis Canada’s Regional Training Centre in Toronto, training there three times a week, before or after school.

Andreescu was progressing quickly. Both father and daughter laugh while recounting a memorable friendly match they played during a vacation in Florida when she was 12.

At 13, Andreescu became the third Canadian – after Gabriela Dabrowski and Edward Nguyen – to win Les Petits As in France, one of the world’s premier junior tennis tournaments for youth.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

“I had played a little in high school and university. I could hit the ball. So I bet her $50,” her father says.

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“I creamed him,” his daughter proudly interjects.

She began travelling for tournaments, often on her own with fellow players and coaches while her parents remained home to work.

“I’m an only child and I don’t mind being alone. I’m a very independent person,” Andreescu says. “I had to grow up fast.”

At 13, Andreescu became the third Canadian behind Gabriela Dabrowski and Edward Nguyen to win Les Petits As in France, one of the world’s premier junior tennis tournaments for children between the ages of 12 and 14. Several of its champions have gone on to win Grand Slams, such as Rafael Nadal, Hingis and Kim Clijsters.

“That’s where I first got a taste of what it’s like to be a professional tennis player. Thousands of people come to watch, and the kids sign autographs and do events with their fans, and I loved every minute of it,” Andreescu recalls. “The travel was so cool, meeting new people, eating authentic food, and I thought, ‘If this is the tennis life, I definitely want to have it.’ ”

She followed a string of Canadian girls to win another elite international junior tournament in Florida, the Orange Bowl. Dabrowski had won the U18 event in 2009, then the U16 was won by countrywomen Erin Routliffe (2011), Gloria Liang (2012) and Charlotte Robillard-Millette (2013) before Andreescu took it in 2014.

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Andreescu distinguished herself from the pack by returning to Plantation, Fla., the next year to win the U18 title as a 15-year-old. She upset a higher-seeded American girl – Kayla Day – who had handed her a straight-sets loss one month earlier in Mexico. It was a rare back-to-back Orange Bowl feat also accomplished by Chris Evert and Mary Joe Fernandez.

Andreescu’s mother says U.S. colleges called, interested in offering scholarships, but she and her husband always supported their daughter chasing career as a pro instead.

“We knew exactly what she wanted, and we never had doubts about it,” Maria says. “As a mother, I had that feeling that never lies to you. I know her. I know her passion and her work ethic.”

Andreescu rose to become the third-ranked junior in the world. The right-hander won doubles titles in 2017 with close friend and fellow Canadian Carson Branstine at both the Junior Australian and French Opens. The two girls celebrated the two victories simply – talking late into the night in Melbourne and visiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

“I’ve believed in Bianca’s tennis since the first time I saw her play,” Branstine said in a phone interview from Montreal. “She can hit crazy angles, drop shots and slices, and hit with a lot of spin. You really have to think about what you’re doing when you’re playing against a player like Bianca.”

Andreescu spent some time working with former French star, Wimbledon finalist and World No. 3 Nathalie Tauziat, who had also coached Bouchard. Tennis Canada wanted her to stay training and living in Toronto with her family as long as she could, so she went to the National Training Centre in Montreal a year later than most teen talents do. She arrived there in the fall of 2017.

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To that point, Andreescu had done all of her high-school studies online while balancing her tennis. She is still working on her high-school diploma between tournaments, in co-ordination with Bill Crothers Secondary School in Markham. Training time in Montreal offered her the closest thing she’s ever had to typical high-school life. There, organized around their training, the players have specific hours to spend together in a classroom, learning and completing school work.

Louis Borfiga, Tennis Canada’s vice-president of high performance, eventually asked Sylvain Bruneau – the Canadian women’s national team coach – to set aside his role as Fed Cup captain and become Andreescu’s full-time coach.

Their first trip together took place last March to play some smaller tournaments in Japan. They watched some men’s tennis during the trip and discussed how Andreescu’s style could be similar to male players who use variation, hit the ball with volume and put more spin on it, instead of hitting it flat and early like many of her competitors on the WTA Tour.

“We all recognized that Bianca was a little bit special,” Bruneau said in a phone interview last month from Montreal. “We discussed at that point that we wanted her to play a little differently than the other girls, because of her skills. We want her to bring physicality to the game.”

But last season was not smooth sailing. She struggled with injuries – especially back pain. She was taken off the court in a wheelchair after retiring with severe cramps at the Fed Cup. She didn’t make it through qualifying at any Grand Slams. Her ranking fluctuated.

Last fall, they built up her fitness and her confidence with lots of matches in North American tournaments on the ITF women’s circuit, a development track for the WTA Tour. She played five events in two months, winning 18 of her 21 matches and earning two $25,000 titles.

While she finished 2018 on a winning roll, she didn’t reach her overall goal for the season: to crack the top 100.

She and Bruneau went into a productive off-season, training in Montreal and at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. She took on a variety of top-100 players in practice sets, and Bruneau says she won every one.

“At the end of the camp, she told me, ‘I’ve never felt so good, I feel so confident,’ ” Bruneau said.

She kept the same goal for 2019: to finish inside the top 100. Even after Auckland, she stumbled in a first-round loss at the Australian Open. But she has acquired a sense of belonging.

“I remember in Auckland, my goal was just to put up with Wozniacki and Venus,” Andreescu recalled. “I kept telling myself 'Wow, I’m keeping up with them here, so maybe I’ve actually got a chance?’ I started really going for shots, because I thought I had nothing to lose. When I think like that, I play my best tennis.”

For Bruneau, one of the most rewarding moments of Andreescu’s 2019 success came after she lost in January’s Auckland final to World No. 14 Julia Goerges.

“When Georges was speaking at the trophy ceremony after the match, she said it had been very tough initially to adapt to Bianca because she plays differently,” Bruneau said. “We really liked that, because it’s exactly what we’re trying to do with Bianca.”

She’ll get to enjoy the fruits of her improved ranking: no more playing qualifiers or asking for wild cards. Business and media requests are increasing, too.

“Her time is becoming more and more precious and we have to find the right balance between the right number of partnerships to help her be secure without overexposing her, especially at age 18,” says her agent Jonathan Dasnières de Veigy, a former French player. “Business is not the main priority for now. We believe she can be a top player, and one of the last players standing in Grand Slams.”

Andreescu is hoping for another by-product of her success.

“Hopefully soon, I’ll start making enough money that they can travel with me,” she says, smiling at her parents. “I’d definitely love that.”

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