TORONTO — It started in Auckland, when 18-year-old Bianca Andreescu pulled off a remarkable run to the final of the ASB Classic. It gained steam when she won a title at Newport Beach including a 6-2, 6-0 dismantling of compatriot Eugenie Bouchard. The hype train then sped away when she beat four players in the top 35 on her way to the Indian Wells title in early March.
Rogers Cup commercials on television and posters wherever they could be found started and finished with her, and with that, the new face of Canadian women’s tennis was front and centre for all to see.
It wasn’t so long ago that Bouchard was where Andreescu is, soaking in all the plaudits from the media and the adulation of the fans for her performances on court. A pair of Grand Slam semifinal appearances in Australia and France before a dream run to the final of Wimbledon highlighted a 2014 that suggested there was plenty to come for Bouchard. But just like the opposite coloured tops and skirts they wore for their first-round encounter on Centre Court at the Aviva Centre on Tuesday night in front of a packed house, this was a stark reminder of how distant the two are from each other.
On the surface, a three-set match that ended 6-4 in the decider would indicate a thrilling match, but this was a seven-game series with five blowouts along the way. The two loudest cheers came when Andreescu finished off a quality rally between the two at the net with the score reading 5-1, 0-30 in the second set and then when she broke for a 4-3 lead in the third. There wasn’t much of a rallying cry from the crowd for Bouchard before the final game of the match, the end seeming inevitable.
The 19-year-old started off rusty and struggled to find consistency with her groundstrokes throughout the match, while Bouchard has failed to develop a Plan B ever since her captivating run in 2014 and that fact reared its ugly head as the match wore on.
“It's my first tournament back after a couple weeks, but I'm really glad with how I managed it,” Andreescu said after the match. “I tried to just focus on what I was doing well. Because I know in the first set I was missing a lot. But, yeah, I don't really know. I think things just switched on for me in the second set. I started going for my shots more and that really helped.”
Hope and belief can be funny like that. The path envisioned for Andreescu is scripted by a magical few months, just as Bouchard’s was five years ago. But nothing is promised, nothing is given, and so the 25-year-old stands on the outside looking in now. Where Andreescu goes from here is up to her, and as the last couple of months may suggest, her body. What this match showed is that there is an unrelenting desire to figure out a way to get to where she needs and wants to go.
As miss after miss flew off her racquet in the first set, there were still enough flashes of her powerful, overwhelming groundstrokes — enough of them to keep her focused on what she was doing well. But she’s also unafraid of mixing it up from time to time. There were forehand slice approaches that didn’t quite work out as well as drop shots to keep Bouchard guessing, but the one that has consistently been there for her is the looping forehand that can instantly reset an intense rally, like a perfectly timed joke to release the tension in a difficult conversation.
“I really like to change the rhythm,” Andreescu said when asked about playing “moonballs.” “And I think it threw her off today, and it throws off a lot of opponents, a lot of my opponents. So, yeah, but I don't necessarily call it a moonball. I would say more of a deep, effective high ball. Sounds better [laughs].”
As she used those rallies to find a rhythm, the primal screams to the crowd and her box grew. The confidence of the woman who has captured the imagination of the local fans evident for all to see. So even when things didn’t go her way after an early break in the third that she failed to consolidate, she buckled down and simply broke back, eliciting roars from the crowd this time.
After match point, she left the court just as she started it, with a beaming smile and a joy to be out there on a tennis court in a competitive match after being robbed of that feeling for months, usually an eternity for teenagers. She also recognizes the responsibility she carries, as she acknowledged looking up to Bouchard growing up because she was the only Canadian woman of note on the single tour. Now, all eyes are on her, and she embraces it.
“I feel like I am, yes, because I've been getting a lot of messages from younger athletes just saying how much of an inspiration I am to them, which has been one of my goals for the longest time, and I'm slowly starting to do that,” Andreescu said when asked about being a role model.
“And me stepping on the court, really, I try to just give my best and try to show a really good example to the younger generation. Because they really look up to certain players, and I guess one of those players is me.”