Years before she’d won anything important, Bianca Andreescu already understood how you’re meant to talk about such things.
She took up tennis seriously at 10 years old. She made her first headlines in youth tournaments at 14. A year later, she beat a bunch of older girls at a talent-spotting U.S. event.
“I’m only 15 and this is like the next step to winning a Grand Slam,” Ms. Andreescu said afterwards. That’s what you’re meant to say. That good enough is not good enough.
She even understood that boilerplate quotes work best with a hook. She said she was going out afterwards to The Cheesecake Factory because “I didn’t have any cake this week.”
On Sunday, Ms. Andreescu told CNN that she began writing herself mock cheques for the winner’s portion of U.S. Open prize money as a motivator. She wrote a new one each year as the amount changed. When we talk about ‘making’ a champion – as if there are assembly instructions included with children – it works the same in most instances. Ms. Andreescu got no more or better training than thousands of gifted kids looking to make it in tennis. She was prodigious, but plenty of them are. Injuries hit her early and harder than most.
So why is Ms. Andreescu Canada’s first Grand Slam singles champion? What makes her different?
A lot of people have been asking her coach, Sylvain Bruneau, that question lately. Ms. Andreescu won the U.S. Open by beating Serena Williams in straight sets on Saturday. Mr. Bruneau didn’t get a cheque but he was also a winner. His career just broke the atmosphere en route to global orbit alongside his protégé.
Even though he’s there every day, Mr. Bruneau doesn’t have a good answer about what makes Ms. Andreescu more special than all the other special people. There’s a lot of talk about mental toughness, corralling a high tennis IQ and being “a street fighter.”
But Ms. Andreescu tried to explain it in terms that are deeply out of fashion. We live in the era of perfectibility and truth through data. If you collate information the right way, you will find your answer.
Ms. Andreescu’s formula is more metaphysical. She wins because she believes she will.
A year ago, she was injured. She failed to advance through the qualifiers of the U.S. Open. She didn’t even watch the final. On Saturday evening, she claimed to have not seen any of it until she watched a few highlights that morning for scouting purposes.
How did a pro tennis player remain so ignorant of what was easily the biggest story in tennis last year? Because she’s avoiding tennis.
Even so recently – fully grown and essentially the player she is now – Ms. Andreescu describes herself as petulant and miserable.
“I would get very negative thoughts going through my mind. I would smash racquets,” Ms. Andreescu said. “So I started seeing … (here she paused and decided against saying the word ‘therapist’ out loud) … I’ll say I started seeking advice from other people.”
She now practises meditation. She is to visualization what Novak Djokovic is to the war on gluten. She ritualizes positive thinking (which sounds much more exhausting than playing tennis). She talks a lot about breathing, as if that’s a pastime rather than a biological fact.
She calls all this “working your mind.”
“At this level, everyone knows how to play tennis,” Ms. Andreescu said. “The thing that separates the best from the rest is the mindset.”
All this useful advice and insight came spiced with some absolute nonsense as well.
“Like I said many times, if I can do it, if Serena [Williams] can do it, if Roger [Federer] can do it, if Steve Nash can do it, then anyone can do it,” Ms. Andreescu said.
No. They can’t. You or I could visualize greatness 25 hours a day and we are still not winning Wimbledon eight times.
But successful people think success is simply a matter of trying hard enough. Because that worked for them.
Another thing we’re talking about when we’re talking about making champions is codifying the process so completely that it is repeatable.
What if Eugenie Bouchard had been a big visualizer?
It may be cruel to compare Ms. Bouchard with Ms. Andreescu right now, but it seems apt. They received essentially the same training in the same environment. They were each prodigious teens. They peaked at around the same age.
But one of these things is not like the other. Ms. Andreescu has the head for this. For whatever reason, Ms. Bouchard doesn’t. That’s the only explanation for someone who made three slam semis in a season no longer being able to win a first-round match.
Despite her troubles, Ms. Bouchard is still banging away with the same power-of-positivity mantras that Ms. Andreescu uses. I guess it doesn’t work for everyone.
The bottom line is that you can’t make a Ms. Andreescu. She is born. Through some unrepeatable combination of genetics, upbringing, experience and outlook, we have arrived at a nearly perfect athletic competitor. Someone who isn’t affected by fear and self-doubt in the same way as the rest of us.
What you are struck by when you talk to truly great athletes is how little philosophy they apply to their art.
Former Toronto Blue Jay Vernon Wells – who was at the time perhaps the most gifted centre-fielder in baseball – used to do a drill wherein he would turn his back to the plate and run to balls hit into the outfield. At the last minute, he’d spin and catch them without fail. His only point of reference was the sound of the ball off the bat.
I asked him how he did that.
“I don’t think about it,” Mr. Wells said, as if that were an explanation.
How did Ms. Andreescu – someone who’d never been there before, had no idea how it would feel, facing the best that ever was in front of the most hostile crowd in tennis – do it?
“I just tried to breathe,” was the closest she could come to an explanation.
In any sport, you can train them up to a certain level. By the time you have gotten to the professional ranks, the vast majority of aspirants have been eliminated.
At that point, it becomes ineffable. Some people are just born winners. That offends our societal belief in the great meritocracy, but it doesn’t make it any less true. You can’t tell the winners from the losers until they’ve won. Then it’s obvious.
You can’t scout a winning mentality. At the developmental stage, they’re all winners. You can’t develop it. It just is or it isn’t.
Ms. Andreescu is a winner. Tennis Canada didn’t turn her into one. It gave her the basic tools. She did the finishing work herself. Whatever she has can’t be broken down into steps in a training manual, although God knows people will try.
This is a good thing. It’s the best possible thing. Because if sports really were a science, we would not be capable of being amazed by their magic.