By Nick Carter
Recently, Owen talked about the comeback of Dominic Thiem, who was playing on the ATP Tour for the first time in over a year. It was an encouraging performance from the 2020 U.S. Open champion in Belgrade, despite his loss to John Millman. He wasn’t at his best but he was competitive. In Owen’s piece, he talked about how comebacks take time.
There was another former U.S. Open champion beginning their return to the tour today, although they were out for very different reasons. Bianca Andreescu returned in Stuttgart. Whilst Thiem did struggle for motivation in 2021, he was kept out of the game because of physical injury. Andreescu, by contrast, had a much more dramatic loss of motivation, which she recently talked about in an interview with Catherine Whittaker on The Tennis Podcast. It was a powerful listen and worth checking out for yourself. The short version is that Andreescu didn’t want to even think about tennis for four months, and she’s been out for six.
The Canadian is not the only top women’s player to struggle with her mental health in the last year or so. Naomi Osaka famously opened up about her issues midway through 2021, but made headlines in the way that she did it. Andreescu was still trying to battle her mental health on the court, and it was showing to those who were paying attention. She had a decent start to 2021, fighting her way to the Miami final only for her body to cry “enough!” when trying to compete with Ash Barty. Up to then her win-loss record for the season was 9-3. After Miami, her record was 8-9, which falls to 5-8 if you don’t include her fourth round run at the US Open, where she was the closest to her best self. This was the stark contrast to her breakout 2019 season, where if she didn’t win it was usually due to injury. In 2021, most of her wins were in three set scraps (11/17), and when she lost they were generally in straight sets (7/12). In total, over half her matches that year went to 3 sets (15/29), which gets worse when you consider two of them ended in a retirement either by her or the opponent. Now, she did get herself into scraps in 2019 as well, but she was winning those matches. In 2021, not only was she losing but she was visibly unhappy. This could probably be discerned by watching her on court, particularly during the grass court season, but she’s confirmed as much since then. She was attaching her self-worth to her results, which sounds like a really tough place to be in mentally and something a lot of us can relate to in our own lives.
During this time, it was clear Andreescu was not enjoying herself. Now, she says she’s excited to be playing again and has rediscovered her love for tennis. She’s clearly benefited from her break and getting the most out of life again, spending it with friends and family. She even had a children’s book published. However, was a more balanced Andreescu going to be competitive from the off? History would suggest not. At the 2021 Australian Open, she was coming back having not played for the entirety of 2020 due to a combination of injury and dealing with the pandemic. She lost in the second round having battled through a rusty performance in her previous match. Like Owen has said, comebacks take time. Yes, she hasn’t dealt with physical injury but match fitness is more than just being physically able to play your best. And I think most of us can confirm it takes time to recover when your mental health is at a low point. So we need to be patient with Bianca, as I hope and assume she is being with herself. Her return, however she does, is a massive inspiration for those of us who are moving forward after similar struggles, even if they are unique to us. Osaka is as well, especially in the way she’s been open about seeking therapy. From what she has said, like Andreescu she let her results affect her mental health way too much.
In her match against Julie Niemeier, Andreescu actually settled in pretty quickly, which was encouraging. Then she tried to press for an early break in the German’s opening service game, only to then go a break down when her opponent played a really strong series of points on the return. Andreescu was able to find her range, but not consistently. Whilst I will put some of this down to match rustiness, she was also having to fend off some big hitting from Niemeier, who was looking for any opportunity to put the Canadian off balance. However, Andreescu’s competitive edge was still clearly there, keeping the home player from breaking her again in the first set and continuing to put pressure on in her return games. Taking advantage of Niemeier’s tightness when trying to serve out the set, Andreescu went on the attack and levelled at 5-5, having saved set point two games previously. Suddenly, things were a lot more balanced but Bianca continued to tip things in her favour, finally striking to earn her own set point and seeing it out in the tie-break. It was then that we heard her first really audible “come on!”
It had been another great fighting performance by Andreescu up to this point, but now she was taking control. She really put pressure on Niemeier and forced more errors from the German to break early in the second set. She had fully found her range at this point; this was a far more confident Bianca Andreescu than we had seen for some time. Niemeier was having to hit bigger to try and keep up and began overhitting, then her serve deserted her in the final game. It was a great performance by Andreescu overall given how long she’s been out and how well her opponent was playing. It was better than so many tennis fans could have hoped.
Andreescu seems to play her best when she’s on North American turf, having won in Indian Wells, Toronto and New York. There are reasons to hope she can find her best form ahead of her return to the U.S. hard courts, as she performed well on the clay overall last year. She lost only marginally in the first round of Roland Garros to eventual semi-finalist Tamara Zidansek, and won her other two matches played on the surface. The fast indoor clay courts of Stuttgart should make her feel comfortable. It will be interesting to see how she does against Aryna Sabalenka in the next round, but I’m not going to pile expectations on her. It was a good win today, but it’s the start of the journey. For now, it’s good to see her happy, healthy and already playing tennis at a high level.