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Bianca Andreescu Is Back On The Baseline

By Giri Nathan

Isn’t it wonderful to see someone pick up where they left off? Especially when they left off just absolutely blowing shit up. When Bianca Andreescu stepped away from tennis at the end of 2019, it was with a comical 46–7 record. She came into that season ranked No. 152 in the world, and ended it as No. 4. She had never faced a top 10 player before then, only to beat the first eight she encountered. She played her first Indian Wells, and won it, then did the same thing at Toronto. She played her first main-draw US Open and won that, too—over Serena Williams, at 19 years old. But health didn’t hold up, and she wound down the season with three straight losses, all against other top 10 players, and had to bow out of the WTA Finals with a knee injury. And after an entrance that explosive, 2020 was the idle drift of cinder and rubble, as Andeescu managed her injuries and tried to stay active during the lockdowns at home in Canada. When the tour resumed, her titles went undefended. The endless rite of entering and withdrawing from tournaments had a boy-who-cried-wolf effect; I’d believe she was back when I saw her standing on the baseline. All said, she wouldn’t play a single match all year, though she did continue her practice of positive visualization, which, she maintains, can be as effective as actual court time.

I’m not doubting any of her methods after seeing the results. Apparently her time in Australia was all the warm-up she needed, because this week in Miami she has looked like the same world-destroying talent as in 2019…and possibly even better? The same question tumbled over and over in my head: Who else even plays tennis like this? There are lots of other skilled players coming up in the WTA, a handful of them with Slams to their name already, but nobody else boasts this complete a repertoire of strokes, and nobody else is fusing this much feel and athleticism. Rally after rally, Andreescu executes shots most other players wouldn’t dare visualize. (Seriously, we need to try these meditation techniques.) She’s plucking the ball out of the air at midcourt with bold swinging volleys. She’s chopping up the rhythm with forehand slices. She’s shoving opponents way off the baseline with big shape and spin and then leaving them stranded out there as she flicks the short angled winner. And it all looks so intuitive, as if these ideas appeared in her mind, fully formed, each one the obvious solution to the ball at hand. It’s the kind of tennis that makes new fans and baffles the old. It’s the type of talent that frustrates lazy comparisons and seems sui generis.

Bibi with the 2019 Indian Wells trophy. (David Bartholow / @gorillavbear)

This week in Miami she’s had lots of chances to re-establish herself as one of the tour’s real geniuses. On Tuesday she delivered conclusive proof by beating the woman of the moment, Garbine Muguruza, in an engrossing three-setter. In context, it’s a little scary. Here was a player in her ninth match in 15 months, looking like she might third-set bagel the most in-form player in tennis, only to let up a little and “just” win 3–6, 6–3, 6–2. Catch as much of this match as you can find, and do not miss the squash-shot winner, an instant entry into the career highlight reel.

Next up in Wednesday’s quarterfinal was Sara Sorribes Tormo, a 24-year-old on a recent tear. During the broadcast they put up a picture of her as a little kid, standing next to countryman David Ferrer, whom she describes as her idol. There’s more than a little of Ferru’s indefatigable defense in her game, which turned the Miami hard court into her home clay, as she tracked down every ball and returned to sender with mucho topspin. Not so fun for anyone to deal with. Not at all fun for someone caught up in their third straight three-setter in South Florida humidity. Andreescu hung on, though, and won another thriller, 6–4, 3–6, 6–3, as her physical resilience rose to match her tactical brilliance.

And in Thursday’s semifinal, she beat Maria Sakkari, 7–6(7), 3–6, 7–6(4), in an odyssey that defies easy summary except to say that Bibi won every point she had no choice but to win. Though she was off-kilter for long stretches of the match, whenever the scoreboard looked its most desperate, her game blazed to life. At the end of the first set tiebreak, a previously errant backhand became a murder weapon. As Sakkari served for the match at 5-6 in the third, Andreescu decided it was fine time to break at love. Mentally she is on some terrifying higher plane. Rain delays earlier in the schedule sent this match deep into the night. So after all that off the court, Bibi was up past 1:00 a.m. in Miami, going ballistic in the third-set tiebreak of her fourth-straight marathon match to secure a spot in a WTA 1000 final. That’s just continuity; she’s back where she belongs.

Above: Bibi slicing it up in Miami (Alamy)

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