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Bianca Andreescu is photographed before a news conference in Toronto on Thursday July 14, 2022, ahead of the National Bank Open tennis tournament.Chris Young/Getty Images

For a while, Bianca Andreescu hated tennis.

The feeling began to fester a couple of years after she became Canada’s first Grand Slam singles champion in 2019. After a run of exhilarating success, the rising WTA star felt ill-equipped to handle losses. Dealing with injuries, a bout of COVID and isolation time spent in hotels all threw off her quest to be world No. 1. The tennis star began to fixate on the haters and their biting messages on social media. All the fun had leaked out of the sport, and the young player measured her personal worth by her results and rankings. Chest pains became frequent.

Andreescu’s ah-ha moment came when she should have been enjoying the luxuries of success. It was the fall of 2021, during the BNP Parabas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., and she was staying at a stunning rental home, a perk reserved for the returning champ. She’d won the event in 2019 as an audacious 18-year-old.

“I was staying at the most beautiful house. I had everything at my feet because I was defending champion,” Andreescu told The Globe and Mail during a recent video interview from San Jose, Calif. “But nothing fulfilled me. I was walking through that house, receiving all these gifts, and thinking ‘I don’t deserve this, like what am I doing?’”

Even those gorgeous surroundings couldn’t brighten her. For months, Andreescu had been feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders, never feeling like herself on court. It was time to do something. She dreaded disappointing people, but decided to take an indefinite break from tennis. She told her circle privately. Most supported her idea, although a few didn’t. Andreescu later announced it publicly in a tweet on Dec. 6.

“I hated myself, I hated the sport,” Andreescu recalled. “I didn’t know when I was coming back, or if I was coming back, because at that point, I was like, so done. Just so done.”

Andreescu took six months away from competition to focus on her mental health. That’s an eternity on the WTA Tour, where women play for millions in prize money and jockey in the world rankings every week, with new stars regularly skyrocketing onto the scene. Such a break by a pro athlete was once considered rash or weak, but it’s becoming more accepted, as superstar athletes such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have shared their mental health struggles. Andreescu used the time away to throw herself into different passions, to travel without a tennis racquet and attend a life-changing retreat in Costa Rica.

Now refreshed, her affections for tennis revived, the Mississauga native is a few months into her return to the Tour. She’s set to play this week near home for the first time in three years at the National Bank Open (formerly named the Rogers Cup). Because of the pandemic, the WTA has not made its biennial tour stop in Toronto since 2019, when Andreescu became its first Canadian champ since 1969, just weeks before claiming the U.S. Open title in back-to-back finals against legend Serena Williams. She began a wild 2019 ranked No. 152, and rapidly soared to a career-high No. 4, stunning top WTA players and dazzling fans with her combination of power and variety widely lauded as fun to watch.

Much has happened in Andreescu’s life since then.

Her timeout this past year wasn’t the first occasion the Canadian has taken a hiatus from the WTA Tour. She played no tournaments in 2020. First she withdrew from the Australian Open – the first slam of the season – still nursing a knee injury suffered at the 2019 WTA Finals the previous October. Then, when the Tour returned from its pandemic pause in August, 2020, Andreescu chose to use the rest of that season to focus on recovery and fitness.

It was 15 months between competitions when she re-emerged for the 2021 Australian Open. She played 13 tournaments in the 2021 season with a 17-13 record in matches – 4-4 in slams. The highs included making the final in Miami (despite retiring from the match with a foot injury), and the round-of-16 at the U.S. Open. There were lows, too: first-round exits at Wimbledon and Roland Garros, and just one victory in Montreal as the Canadian face of the tournament.

Last April, she tested positive for COVID-19. In June, she parted with coach Sylvain Bruneau after four years working together. She was also affected by her grandmother’s several-week stay in an ICU fighting off COVID. The stresses followed her onto the court. She wasn’t catching opponents by surprise as much as she used to and was losing more often. She couldn’t stop herself from scrolling through negative posts directed at her on social media – criticizing her play or admonishing her for posting photos of anything fun, suggesting she wasn’t hard-working or focused enough.

When she took a break from tennis late in 2021, she stopped looking at social media for a while, too.

She said she got to the point where she felt so bad, “it’s almost like your brain craves the negativity,” Andreescu said. “I was looking at every comment and every message and it was just terrible. Now I think I know how to stop myself. Hopefully I never get to that point again.”

During this most recent time off, she focused on different pursuits, such as martial arts, hip hop and yoga. She returned to something she’d loved as a kid – acrobatics.

“I didn’t turn to psychologists or psychiatrists or anything like that. I just wanted to work on myself but with no outer advice or thoughts or pressure,” Andreescu said. “I just wanted to do what I wanted to do, and heal the way I wanted to heal.”

She travelled around Europe, and visited family and friends. She attended a mindfulness retreat – which focused on yoga and traditional African dances – on a white sand beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Nosara, Costa Rica. She quickly mixed in with other guests, despite going there to be alone. Even when Canadians there recognized her, she didn’t feel like a celebrity, but a member of a community that ate, lived and shared stories together, rode horses and spotted monkeys in the trees of their jungle surroundings.

“I loved having that sort of community of like-minded people,” said Andreescu, who has practised meditation since she was a child.

Andreescu did some charity work in Toronto – with animals at the Humane Society, and with women and children at Yellow Brick House, a domestic-violence shelter.

“It showed me a lot of humility,” Andreescu said. “It made me feel so much more appreciative of my life.”

Andreescu returned to Tour play this April, by then ranked No. 121, starting in Stuttgart, Germany.

She’s played 20 matches over eight tournaments in 2022, picking up 12 wins and improving her ranking to No. 54. She beat a few players ranked in the top 20, including Emma Raducanu, Danielle Collins and Daria Kasatkina. She made her first career grass-court final, at Bad Homburg, Germany, in late June.

Fellow Canadian and tennis TV analyst Sharon Fichman says seeing a player open up publicly about her mental and emotional health is more supported on today’s WTA Tour, where it was once stigmatized as a weakness.

“Taking a temporary monetary loss, but putting your time and energy into being the best version of yourself is going to pay off tenfold,” Fichman said of Andreescu’s mental health leave. “She listened to herself and I think that’s really a challenging thing to do, especially when you’re in a position like Bianca, with so many sponsors, pressures and people who want you to get back out there and to play.”

She calls Andreescu a “dark horse” to win in Toronto, and says her best tennis may yet be ahead.

The average age of women in the WTA’s top 10 is 25.2. Andeescu, who has made some US$8-million in prize money in her career, just turned 22 in June.

“There’s a big burnout rate and a huge number of players that have so much potential that quit before they have a chance to show what they can do,” Fichman said. “That’s because the sport is really mentally gruelling, especially in this age of social media. It is not the same as it was 10 to 20 years ago.”

Andreescu’s latest match this week was concerning, though. She struggled through back pain and used medical timeouts in a 6-4, 6-2 loss to U.S. world No. 45 Shelby Rogers in San Jose on Tuesday, in the first-round of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic. Her representative confirmed Friday she’s rested and on track to play in Toronto.

The field will be tough, with 41 of the Tour’s top 43 players competing – including Canadian world No. 14 Leylah Fernandez – plus legends Serena and Venus Williams. There will be full capacity at York University’s Sobey’s Stadium. The tournaments in Montreal and Toronto were cancelled in 2020 and held with limited crowds in 2021. Andreescu has fond memories of those Toronto courts, training there as a kid, then rollicking to six wins on her remarkable run to the 2019 title.

Andreescu arrives as the published author of a children’s picture book, Bibi’s Got Game, and the ambassador of Tennis Canada’s new wellness project, called Mental Timeout. The initiative includes new mental health resources for players on site at this year’s WTA event in Toronto, and the ATP tournament in Montreal, including one-on-one access to meditation and yoga experts, plus relaxation spaces.

“I know I’m not alone. I’ve had a chance to speak to legends like Billie Jean King and Kim Clijsters who have given me such amazing advice,” Andreescu said. “I’m trying not to take life too seriously.

“You just have to take a deep breath. I don’t want to feel so stressed out. I obviously want to win and do well, but the same time I want to have fun. It’s a game of tennis, you know?”