On Jan. 1, Bianca Andreescu was ranked 152nd on the women’s tennis tour.
Now, experts say the Mississauga, Ont., native, who currently sits fifth, could change the women’s game for years to come.
Fresh off her U.S. Open victory over Serena Williams, Andreescu’s return to the court at the China Open this week could vault her to No. 3 in the world. She plays her opening-round match on Sunday against Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus. And Andreescu is a good bet to win the high-stakes WTA Finals later in October.
Pam Shriver, the 21-time Grand Slam doubles champion, compared Andreescu’s arm to a “top of the line Ferrari.” She said some of Andreescu’s strokes reminded her of tennis legends like Rafael Nadal and Steffi Graf.
Andre Labelle, Andreescu’s former national team coach, said parts of the Canadian’s game remind him of Roger Federer. Robert Bettauer, a tennis analyst for Sportsnet, made the same comparison, and included Novak Djokovic’s name, too.
Andreescu’s mental game, according to all three experts, is a vital component in her success. The ability to focus just on the court is what allowed a 19-year-old to go 8-0 against top-10 opponents this season, including Andreescu’s crowning victory against Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final.
But all the strokes still need to be there, and from a technical perspective, Shriver, LaBelle and Bettauer struggled to come up with a weakness in Andreescu’s game. They agreed that her variety of strengths is what sets her apart from other women – and could even change women’s tennis for good.
That’s the type of impression Andreescu has made. That’s the type of year she’s had. Right now, she’s the best women’s player on the planet. And it’s not particularly close.
Among players with 30 or more matches on the women’s tour, Andreescu ranks 17th in percentage of first-serve points won (66.1), 14th in percentage of second-serve points won (49.3) and 10th in percentage of total service games won (74.3).
Shriver: I think her first serve is top 10 per cent. Because she has a big powerful forehand and she moves well, she might not feel as much pressure on the serve. She has a good serve, an athletic serve. But some of her success on the serve is because she knows she can break if she happens to not be able to hold serve.
Labelle: I don’t think she’ll be able to serve as big as Serena, but that’s not bad. All the plans Andreescu has are to get the opponent to give her an easier ball so she can be dictating play. You know that’s what she wants. She’s there to dictate.
Bettauer: She’s got a strong serve, not the biggest serve in the game, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s an effective serve and it’s reliable. No doubt she can probably get more free points off her first serve, and she can probably get a heavier spin second serve.
Shriver: She’s on kind of a free-feeling, go-for-it type attitude [on her first serve] and then her second serve is actually more powerful than most. I would rather in this day and age have the ability to have a 95 mile-an-hour second serve that can’t be punished like a 78 mile-an-hour sitter. I’d rather serve five, six double faults per match and not let people just have batting practice with my serve.
Bettauer: Her second serve doesn’t need improvement, but she’ll want improvement. She’ll want more winning points off her first serve. So either aces or unreturnable because it’s tough to grind out every single point. So you want to a few freebie points right where you win it just on your serve.
Among players with 30 or more matches, Andreescu ranks fourth in percentage of return points won (47.1) and fourth in percentage of return games won (42.8). As all three experts laid out, her forehand is the driving force in every break.
Labelle: It’s funny because there was a table with her forehand speed comparing her with Nadal and Medvedev and she had a bigger forehand rotations per minute (RPM) than both. I sent it to Felix [Auger-Aliassime]’s coach and he replied ‘OK, maybe Felix should start training with Bianca.’ That was funny.
Shriver: It is intimidating. It’s intimidating with its power, with its topspin and with enough variety that you’re sort of off balance.
Bettauer: Full-body rotation and great arm speed.
Shriver: Her intent is obviously to punish the ball. She’s learned really good technique how to hit the topspin in the modern game to take advantage of modern strings and equipment.
Labelle: She can do many things on the forehand. She can go heavy down the line. She can open up the court with a sharp angle. She can drive the ball from inside the court and she can make a winner. Like if the ball is too easy, too short, too high or too soft, you’re looking for trouble.
Opinion on Andreescu’s return of serve achieved comparisons to tennis legends Djokovic, Nadal and Graf. But one expert said the stroke still leaves something to be desired.
Bettauer: She has in many ways a Djokovic return. I mean Djokovic’s return is sort of the best in the game, but he doesn’t have winners on it. What he does is just a really deep return at your feet all the time which neutralizes you as a server. Now you’re on even footing, and often for Bianca, that’s an advantage because on even footing, she’s going to be able to control the point.
Shriver: She’s one of those players that makes the opponent’s weak second serve, she punishes them. You know, to break Serena six times in a major final, not many people have done that. She doesn’t have the best return yet but she’s got better than average anticipation of where the serve’s going.
Labelle: We would spend more time on her return forehand side, just because that’s the area where she’s the most vulnerable for aces or for weak returns because she tends to just stretch there so much that she doesn’t move. She doesn’t step out as good as she could.
Shriver: I think her return will only get better. Forehand’s really the cornerstone of a lot of things. You can build a lot of positives around an intimidating forehand. Steffi Graf did it in my generation, Rafa obviously from the left-hand side does it exceptionally well now on the men’s side. So I think she’s pretty quick to move around. I think she’s always going to be a player that’s thinking about breaking.
Throughout a match, Andreescu will produce a few forehand returns from a crouching position that contain a surprising amount of power.
Shriver: One of the things I was absolutely floored by was how much power she could get when her bum was on the ground. It sort of shows me her strength, her balance, her athleticism when you think about how she handles those low shots where, I mean, you feel like she stumbles sitting on the court.
Labelle: She still has to improve how she manages low balls because when she goes down it’s actually difficult to create a shape on the trajectory. That’s not the way you want to do it. It’s very hard to make a stroke falling downward and your butt is on the ground.
Bettauer: It’s a great way to time a really difficult ball when you get down really low and kind of catch the ball and redirect it using your body to generate the rotation, and I mean, again, it’s because she’s such a great athlete and has such strong legs she can do it and uses it on a periodic basis. You need good timing for it though.
Andreescu tends not to rely on her backhand. If not a weakness, all three experts viewed the backhand as perhaps the weakest part of Andreescu’s game.
Shriver: Her backhand’s not as good as her forehand but you know what, neither was Steffi Graf’s. But I don’t think it’s a big liability either.
Labelle: Her backhand cross-court is very, very, very solid.
Shriver: Maybe if somebody can really take on the backhand it can be a skill like her one-handed. Her backhand side can be exploited but it’s not easy. It’s easier said than done.
Labelle: She’s very clean with their technique. She slices as good as anyone. It’s a two-handed Federer the way she hits the ball. There’s a flow, there’s an easiness and there’s a fluidity in their strokes. You know she doesn’t need force to hit the ball. It just comes out of her racquet through great timing and fluidity and easiness.
Bettauer: In many ways the top players always kind of set the standard and set the culture as Roger Federer. Federer came in and now all that two-handers have learned how to hit one-handed backhand slice because they needed to. They had to, and I think Bianca will have an influence on the women’s game going forward from being big power ground-stroke hitters to players with greater variety because that’s what it’s going to be needed to be able to compete with Bianca. You can’t blow her off the court. So what are you going to do? You’ve got to play with her. You’ve got to find a way to outplay her.
Her net game
The evolution of Andreescu’s net game came while injured. After suffering a double stress fracture in 2016 Australian Open qualifying, Andreescu returned home to work with Labelle. They would spend an hour per day rallying with each other – Andreescu positioned in a business chair with wheels near the net, and Labelle on his feet across from her.
Labelle now says that Andreescu’s father, Nicu, came into his office to talk about the “dark” outlook for his daughter in the days following the injury. Labelle assured Nicu, who wasn’t typically involved in Bianca’s training, that something positive would come from the situation. Bianca followed suit.
Labelle: During that period she kept a really good outlook. We had fun. I was able to stand at the baseline with her and I would just rally at the net on her sitting her butt in the chair and falling back to the ball. And we made some gains and I tried to challenge her with her targets and ‘OK, try to get this and that.’ And she kept improving.
Bettauer: She would just go nonstop, hit flights, drops off both forehand and backhand and it’s one of those 10,000-hour moments. Normally she would never practice the drop shot that much because the idea would have been working on her entire game, but because of the restriction of movement sitting in a chair, that was the main shot you worked on.
With a strong net game now in her back pocket, and a powerful forehand to boot, Andreescu started becoming the total package, something all three experts agreed was the overarching reason for the Canadian’s run of success.
Labelle: I think it’s going to make coaches pay more attention to the younger girls with all the tools and not just to focus on the ground strokes and the serve, but being able to do drop shots and being able to volley properly and being able to change the pace with the heavier ball. And so she’ll have a great influence.
Bettauer: I think she’s showing that being more than a jack — being a queen of all trades — is actually a very successful way and very resourceful way to beat a lot of different players.
Shriver: Because of her power, people probably have to stand three or four feet further back than they do against a lot of players, so that’s an obvious consequence of the drop shot being more available. But I think she has really good understanding of when to play the drop shot. She has underspin, which is really important for the drop shot.
Labelle: She can then intercept at the net because she has a great volley, she could serve and volley too. No problem with that.
Bettauer: It completely throws off the rhythm and tempo of her opponent. So it’s a great play against a power player that wants to get into a rhythm and really start zoning out on hitting tough forehands and backhands, you start throwing the angles and drops, now they can’t pound that ball.
Labelle: She’s able to take a really good approach shots from a girl coming after first serve to the net and then she comes crashing and she’s able to take that ball and make it pop over the girl and down the line. She goes there and she’s accelerating and able to lift that ball over the head and bring the ball back on the court. I mean, it’s crazy. So that’s a difficult task and not easy to do and she’s able to do that.
Shriver: In the end, I think she’s not afraid to try it. There is no fear here.
Bettauer: For me, it’s her full skillset that’s her greatest weapon and her ability to be able to adjust within that to different style based on the needs of the day.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of Andreescu’s 2019 season was how cool she appeared under pressure. A reminder: she beat Serena Williams in straight sets on Williams’ home court in front of 24,000 people rooting against her in the U.S. Open final.
Labelle: When she was 12 or 11, we had national camps three times a year. And I could put her to practice against Felix Auger-Aliassime who are both the same age and both, you know, would have a great practice because she was able to play a heavy ball as well.
Bettauer: She’s a big match player, likes the big stage, plays her best when she’s down or when she really needs to come up big. So very much a player who understands the moment when it’s time to produce.
Shriver: As her opponent, I would do some of her game, get in her face a little bit with some ‘come on!’s early on. Let her know you’re in it to win it because that’s one of the things she does.
Labelle: We always say the great players enjoy the great moments in tennis and you know the big stage they are confident, they swim in the water when they go in the big court in front of 20,000 people. So I think her mental strength has to be really unique.
Bettauer: That’s what makes this win legendary. Not only winning the first Grand Slam singles title by a Canadian but she beat a legend on her court with 24,000 screaming rabid fans, so unbelievable. Well done. Thank you very much. You’ve taken Canadian tennis to a whole new level.
Shriver: Not only does she have the game but maybe if she doesn’t have the game she blocks it well. She’s got the strength and attitude of a winner. And I think you can’t go out there with anything less than projecting positivity.
Labelle: We’ve met some coaches that work with the men’s program that said ‘I normally don’t watch women’s tennis and now I’m watching Bianca play every single match. I enjoy watching her so much.’ And they also say ‘Oh my God, she’s going to help change women’s tennis. The other girls are going to have to be able to play in all the different balls that Bianca is throwing at them.’
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