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Illustration by The globe and mail

Bianca Andreescu pauses our phone interview for just a minute, insisting she has to look something up for me.

The Canadian tennis star says that during 2020, during which we all spent so much time at home, she discovered a passion for creating mandala art. She astutely detects that, a) I have no idea what that is, and that, b) it is definitely a non-sports thing I’m fascinated to learn about her. She wants to search for a proper definition so she can find just the right words to describe this hobby to me, and why she spends her time on it.

“These cosmic diagrams of the universe serve as graphic symbols of our subconscious minds, creating beautiful mandalas can help to stabilize, integrate and reorder our inner lives – basically, they’re geometric flowers that you colour in,” Andreescu says. “It helps me a lot when I feel stressed out or I can’t sleep. It’s very therapeutic.”

Meticulously colouring these intricate flowers in colours that reflect her feelings takes some patience and imagination. I can see why the activity has fit nicely into her life recently. It’s mid-January when we speak and Andreescu is in Dubai training, nearly ready to fly to Melbourne. That’s where the face of Canadian tennis will make her hotly anticipated comeback next month in Australia after 15 long months away from competition.

Andreescu fascinated the tennis world in 2019 with her historic rookie season on the WTA Tour. Then 18, she slayed top players, won titles at Indian Wells and Toronto, then became Canada’s first Grand Slam singles champion at the U.S. Open, toppling Serena Williams in the final. Then the Mississauga native suffered a knee injury at the WTA Finals that October, and her remarkable roll came to a frustrating halt. She hasn’t competed since.

In our conversation, Andreescu calls all those months without matches “weird, but also beneficial.” That long hiatus posed no small challenge, but she’s been patient and strategic about her return. She took time to heal the injury, worked on her mind and addressed something that sometimes bogged her down during those deep tournament runs – her fitness.

“I would say the time off was a blessing in disguise. I worked a lot on myself personally,” Andreescu says. “I had time for other things that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I didn’t have this time off. I developed new habits, new passions. It was very good for my mental health and definitely for my physical health.”

During that time, Andreescu watched from afar as the tennis tours were stopped, resumed and retrofitted with strict COVID-19 protocols. At first it looked as though she would play when the tennis world restarted late in 2020, but she chose not to. She said the pandemic was a big part of her decision, but she also wanted to keep training and get healthier. As her opponents experienced tournament life in a bubble at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open, she watched on TV. So Australia will provide her first experience with tournament life during the pandemic.

“Honestly the other day, I was tearing up with joy because I’m literally getting ready for a tournament that’s actually going to happen,” she says.

In the year away from her sport, Andreescu had more time with her parents and tiny toy poodle Coco. She missed being out with friends at live sports and concerts, but as an only child, she never minds solo time. She likes to read and write in a journal.

Bianca Andreescu celebrates after defeating Serena Williams in the women's singles final of the U.S. Open in New York on Sept. 7, 2019.Adam Hunger/The Associated Press

She has practised meditation since she was young. In addition to creating and colouring mandalas, she has learned how to mix beats on GarageBand. “I’m not bad at it”, she says of her new flair for creating hip hop and R&B music, which she shares publicly on SoundCloud.

For her birthday in June, Andreescu celebrated with someone who also turned 20 that month, Canadian Olympic swimmer Penny Oleksiak, with whom she had become friends with the previous year. The two star athletes enjoyed the rarity of both being off at the same time in the summer and hung out at a cottage.

“We’re both Geminis, we both have dogs that we love, we listen to the same music, we both just kind of have the same vibe, like we kind of look at life the same,” Oleksiak said in an interview in October, when asked how she was spending her time during the pandemic. “It’s just super cool to be able to relate to someone as much as I can with Bianca, and she’s super easy to talk to.”

Andreescu had taken time to heal that knee injury from late 2019, and missed the start of the 2020 WTA season – those months before the pandemic. She worked with Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, long-time doctor to Spain’s Rafael Nadal, a 20-time Grand Slam champ. Andreescu trained hard in Barcelona early last year and says she was on course to play at the Miami Open in March, if COVID-19 hadn’t brought all live sports to a halt.

While her 2019 season had its remarkable highs, it had lows, too. During a year in which she skyrocketed to No. 5 from No. 152 in the WTA rankings, she also missed a lot of time because of injuries.

So the down time in 2020 felt like a prime opportunity to strengthen her body and tune her fitness, better preparing her for the rigours of long tournaments. Exercise equipment arrived at Andreescu’s Toronto-area home in droves when the pandemic lockdown began last spring when tennis courts and gyms closed down. She worked out with everything from a stationary bike, to dumbells, medicine balls and elastic bands as she connected live on Zoom or FaceTime with Tennis Canada trainer Virginie Tremblay from Montreal.

“We had no tournaments on the calendar yet, nothing in the short term to look forward to,” Andreescu says. “Sometimes I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I just had to have in the back of my head my major goal, to become No. 1 in the world.”

When the spring weather was mild, Tremblay urged Andreescu to take her workouts to the garage or to the street, so she could move side to side, change directions, get the racquet in her hand again and mimic her forehand and backhand shots.

Andreescu also has a home in Monaco where she lives half the year, so she resumed training there in the fall. Tremblay joined her there from September through November. Because a pro tennis player typically gets about a one-month off-season in a normal year, they relished the rare luxury of time to concentrate on her fitness. They video-conferenced regularly with coach Sylvain Bruneau back in Montreal and he devised practice plans.

“I know my tennis is there. I think if you just look throughout my path, during matches, I felt like it was more the physical side of things that was giving in the most, so we really focused on that part,” Andreescu says. “And we had a lot of time to work on it, so I’m feeling stronger than ever.”

Her Monaco training involved tennis, but also workouts that sometimes became fun competitions. The workouts improved her strength and endurance, which she will need to battle through tennis points and long tournaments. On their off days, there was swimming or long walks before the 9 p.m. curfew.

“It was such a long period of time, so we had to make sure we didn’t burn her every day from the beginning,” Tremblay, who is one of two trainers who works with Andreescu, said by phone from Montreal. “What was really putting a big smile on her face was to see that every week she was making improvements, and she was training and playing pain free.”

In late November, Andreescu met Bruneau in Dubai to begin their training together. They had not worked together in person for six months. In a typical tennis season, Bruneau, who guided her through that remarkable 2019, would join her on the road in spurts of a few weeks. This time the father of two agreed to be away from his family in Montreal and work with Andreescu for a much longer stretch, until after the Australian Open.

“I think she’s a fabulous project,” Bruneau said by phone from Dubai. “It’s such a privilege for any coach to be able to work with someone who is so good and so talented.”

Lots of players use the warm, seaside area of the Middle East as an off-season training hub. So she hit with other WTA players in Abu Dhabi and at the Mouratoglou Tennis Center Jumeirah in Dubai, the new luxury facility launched by Patrick Mouratoglou, the coach of Serena Williams.

Many top players began their season by playing the WTA 500 tournament in Abu Dhabi, but Andreescu and Bruneau opted for a few more weeks of training. She would wait for Melbourne.

“We want her to be in incredible shape,” Bruneau said. “We believe that this is going to make a difference. She created her physical game, she played a lot of matches, so we want to make sure she is like super ready on that side.”

When they arrived in Melbourne, they faced a delay. Three of the charter flights bringing players, coaches and others to the Australian Open were found to have positive tests onboard – including Bruneau. The coach said in a statement he had no idea how he got the virus. Everyone on board those planes – including 72 players – had to remain in their hotel rooms for 14 days without leaving. Bruneau is doing okay now.

The quarantine time has finally come to an end. Two WTA 500 events were scheduled for the women to serve as tune-ups this week ahead of next week’s Australian Open. A third later event was added -- for players who didn’t leave their rooms for 14 days – and will begin on Wednesday in order to give them extra days to train. It’s called the Grampians Trophy, and Andreescu – the World No. 8 – is on the player list.

In an email from Melbourne, through her agency, Andreescu says she kept her mind busy while confined to her hotel room for two weeks, drawing mandalas, making beats and rediscovering her Xbox, which she hadn’t played in years. She read Physics of the Future.

She worked out virtually with her team and studied her matches on YouTube. Andreescu called family and friends, ordered a lot of Japanese food and dove into shows like The Good Doctor and The Boys.

“Being solo in quarantine, I’ve been able to focus a lot of time on myself, which is good, and also rest a bit after working so hard the last couple of months,” Andreescu writes. “I checked in virtually with a few players. It’s nice because we’re all in the same situation and can keep each other company.”