You’d be hard pressed to find a professional tennis player who wouldn’t agree that their sport is more of a mental game than a physical one.
In women’s tennis especially, margins between players in the Top 50 of the game are razor thin and almost everyone feels like they’re contenders for the top prizes. Everyone is in top shape, can attack and defend, smack an ace or blast a return winner, but the difference between champions and contenders usually falls beyond ball striking and baselines. Instead, it’s largely what’s between your ears that determines not only if you make it to the top, but if you can stay there.
Just ask Emma Raducanu, who came into the US Open ranked No. 150 in the world having yet to win a match at the WTA Tour level… and won the whole damn thing without dropping a set, thanks to fearless play and a nothing-to-lose approach to her matches. But will she be able to sustain her newfound stardom?
If there’s any player who knows exactly what it’s like to catapult into the spotlight from near-obscurity after winning some of tennis’ most prestigious titles, it’s defending BNP Paribas Open champion Bianca Andreescu.
“The advice I would give is to always remain grateful even if you’re having the hugest successes because it can all be taken away from you in a split second,” said Andreescu when asked what advice she would give to the two teenagers, Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, who are just coming off the high of reaching the US Open final less than a month ago.
“Don’t let it go too much in your head,” the Canadian No. 1 added. “Stay confident, obviously, but don’t become stuck up or, you know, ‘I won a Grand Slam so, look at me.’ Just stay humble, remain grateful and continue to work hard because everyone says, at least in my experience, it’s easy to get to the top, but staying at the top is what is the hardest part.”
Indeed, all a player’s successes can be taken away in an instant, and Andreescu would know best. She backed up her surprise BNP Paribas Open triumph over two years ago with the trophy at home in Toronto, and then once again in her signature result: Defeating Serena Williams to win the 2019 US Open.
Her heroics qualified for the WTA Finals in Shenzhen, when tragedy struck. Lunging for a wide return in her second round-robin match against Karolina Pliskova, the Canadian jammed her knee and suffered a meniscus tear, keeping her out of the start of her sophomore season.
She had just withdrawn from the 2020 BNP Paribas Open to further recover from injury when – well, we know what happened next. With plans to return to tour in Miami the following week, the coronavirus pandemic cancelled all competition indefinitely. And while training during the mid-season pause, she aggravated a familiar foot injury from her junior days.
Deciding to shut down her attempts to make a 2020 comeback, Andreescu focused on making her return to competition in Australia to kick off the current season. Despite having to go through an isolated quarantine because coach Sylvain tested positive for COVID-19, the Canadian, optimistic she’d be able to pick up where she left off in 18 months prior, stumbled out of the gates.
After dropping her second-round match at the Australian Open to Hsieh Su-Wei, she struggled to consolidate any momentum earned – such as an impressive run to the final at the Miami Open – with more setbacks throughout the 2021 season. Suddenly feeling less invincible, Andreescu turned to her storied methods of meditation, employed a new coach, and started focusing on the mental side of her game.
“The main thing this year for me was to stop looking in the past, because that’s what I was doing a lot and that’s what was really ruining me,” said Andreescu with the candid introspection fans have come to admire from a player only 21 years of age. “I would always tell myself, ‘Oh, I want to play like I did in 2019 – why aren’t I playing like I used to?’ But then I really had to switch that mindset and start focusing in the present because the past is the past.
“Even in the future, I would really look into the future as well so I just stopped that. I told myself, ‘Look, live every moment like it’s your last.’ Obviously it doesn’t come easy, because I still feel like my mind’s all over the place, but I know it’s getting better. With the help of meditation and a good team around me, that’s definitely going to improve.”
Will it all come together for Andreescu again in Indian Wells? She doesn’t plan on feeling any pressure from memories of her past, but instead chooses to dwell on the positives.
“I think that looking back into the past in a positive way is actually beneficial,” said the No. 16 seed this week. “Indian Wells posted a video of my best shots from the tournament, and just seeing that really brings me into a good place and knowing that I won the tournament.”
A pause. Then a smile.
“It just brings you in a really good place.”