Bianca back to show she's at home on clay

 - Reem Abulleil

Canadian world No.7 returns to the red dirt for the first time in two years

Bianca Andreescu, Roland Garros 2019 first round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

She may not have competed much on clay at the top level during her short career, but Bianca Andreescu assures she has what it takes to excel on the terre battue.

The Canadian world No.7 will return to the red dirt for the first time in two years when she steps on court for her opener in Strasbourg on Monday (against Andrea Lazaro Garcia), searching for some much-needed match play ahead of next week’s Roland-Garros.

Prior to this week, Andreescu’s entire tour-level experience on clay consists of one main-draw match at Roland-Garros in 2019 (along with two Fed Cup matches).

Her previous two trips to Paris saw her exit in the qualifying stages but she has many fond memories of the tournament, both from her junior days and from following on television.

“Obviously watching Nadal just winning year after year after year was really cool to watch,” Andreescu recalls.  

“Roland-Garros was the first ever Grand Slam I’d ever been to, it was super surreal. I was 14, 15, I lost first round, I was super devastated but I was super happy to be there, like amongst all the top athletes, so that was really cool.

“And then I won the doubles title in juniors with my partner, Carson Branstine [in 2017], so that was really cool, I have great memories.”

'My game style suits the clay'

The 2019 US Open champion has an attractive game style that boasts great variety and showcases her problem-solving skills.

Andreescu reached the second round at Roland-Garros two years ago but gave Sofia Kenin a walkover in round two due to injury. The 20-year-old is keen to show the world what she is capable of on the surface, and hopes to get as many matches as possible under her belt in Strasbourg this week before heading to the French capital.

“I think my game style really suits the clay, just because of the variety I have, and some of the heavy, high balls that I hit are obviously more effective on clay just because the ball bounces more,” she explained on Sunday.

“And also my drop shots, if I hit it right, and it’s been showing in practice and practice matches and all that, so I’m super excited to bring that into the match court.”

Bianca Andreescu, Roland Garros 2019 first round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Andreescu blasted onto the scene a little over two years ago when she made a stunning run to the Indian Wells title, ranked No.60 in the world. She suffered injury setbacks in her next two events before storming to the Toronto title on home soil.

At her next tournament, she became a Grand Slam champion at the age of 19, thanks to a straight-sets victory over Serena Williams in the final on a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Physical problems continued to hamper her progress and a knee injury sustained during the WTA Finals in Shenzhen at the end of 2019 saw Andreescu miss the start of 2020 before the pandemic further postponed her return.

She was out of action for more than a year but marched to the Miami final last month in just her third tournament back.

Dealing with setbacks

Her success in Miami gave her the confidence that she was still able to compete at the highest level, and Andreescu was looking forward to carry her form into the clay season. But another curveball was thrown her way when she tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival in Madrid earlier this month, and she also missed Rome due to coronavirus-related restrictions.

Andreescu has found ways to accept the numerous interruptions that have plagued her career, but admits it has not been easy to navigate those past few weeks.

“It was super tough, I’m not going to lie,” she concedes. “When I got the phone call, it was crazy because I got tested negative twice and then I took my flight on Friday and I got tested positive on Saturday, which was super weird. I really don’t know with this Covid thing.

“For sure it was disappointing. First couple of days were tough but thankfully I didn’t have any serious symptoms, just like a little cough.

“Coming out of that, I took another 12 days off, which disrupted a lot of things, but it’s a pandemic, you cannot really control things. I was as careful as I could be, my team as well, but I was in Miami. Miami doesn’t really have that many restrictions and we did the best we could.”

Fan favourite

Despite her frequent absences from the tour, Andreescu has managed to capture the attention and respect of the tennis world and a great deal of excitement follows her anywhere she competes. If her name is in the draw, she is always considered a contender, which can be a little confusing considering this is technically just her second year on the WTA circuit.

“Yeah, it's very weird,” she admits. "My success came very quickly - very, very quickly. It was for sure overwhelming at first. But I think I dealt with it very, very well. I actually enjoyed it.

“Then having a year off was very surprising and very abrupt after having a very successful year. That was weird. But I tried to deal with it in the best way that I could.

“Then coming into Australia, I had a very good pre-season. I was feeling pretty good out there. It's different than playing matches, obviously. I was a bit rusty. I don't feel like I was where I wanted to be at the time.

“It's a process. I've been saying that. My team has been saying that. I'm trying to be as patient as I can to get back up there to feel very good on court. That's just going to take more matches to play.”

Andreescu says her passion for the sport has only grown after all the obstacles she has had to overcome and she believes her run in Miami proved to herself, and the world, that she has the level to match her ranking, which was frozen during her absence in 2020 due to the pandemic.

She’s now ready to don her clay shoes for the first time in two years and has her eyes firmly set on Roland-Garros.

“I love playing on clay. I feel very strong to last on clay this season,” she says. “Been putting a lot of work in, and that showed [in Miami], so I want to continue to do that. Hopefully I can do very well.”