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    What to Watch at the U.S. Open

    Novak Djokovic looks to fend off the surging Jenson Brooksby as a slew of crowd favorites clash in the round of 16.How to watch: From 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN2; and streaming on the ESPN app. In Canada on TSN from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and streaming on TSN.ca and the TSN app.Matches to keep an eye on.Because of the number of matches cycling through courts, the times for individual matchups are estimates and may fluctuate based on when earlier play is completed. All times are Eastern Standard.Louis Armstrong STADIUM | 11 a.m.Belinda Bencic vs. Iga SwiatekBelinda Bencic, who won gold in women’s singles at the Tokyo Olympics, reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 2019 and is two wins away from returning this year. Bencic, a hardcourt specialist seeded 11th, has lost only 18 games across three rounds of play as her flat baseline shots have caused difficulties for her opponents.Iga Swiatek, the seventh seed, is the only woman to reach the second week of each Grand Slam event in 2021, but she did not make it past the quarterfinals at any of the first three. Against Bencic, Swiatek will have to use crafty shots to try to unsettle Bencic’s rhythm on longer rallies.Arthur Ashe Stadium | 10 p.m.Maria Sakkari vs. Bianca AndreescuBianca Andreescu won the 2019 U.S. Open but sustained a knee injury at the end of that year, stymying her development as she took 15 months off, returning at the 2021 Australian Open. After losing in the first round on both the French Open’s clay and Wimbledon’s grass, Andreescu, the sixth seed, has looked more at home on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows.Maria Sakkari, the 17th seed, reached her first major semifinal at this year’s French Open and has moved into the round of 16 at the U.S. Open without dropping a set. After this run, she will move into the top 15 in the world rankings for the first time and with a few more wins, she could even reach the top 10, a first for a Greek woman.Novak Djokovic has looked vulnerable at times.John Minchillo/Associated PressArthur Ashe Stadium | 7 p.m.Novak Djokovic vs. Jenson BrooksbyNovak Djokovic, the first seed, has not looked as indefatigable as usual during the U.S. Open. Although he has won each of his three matches in four sets, there have been moments of lethargy that point to some issues with Djokovic’s form as he chases a calendar Grand Slam.Jenson Brooksby, a 20-year-old American who entered the main draw through a wild card, upset the 21st-seeded Aslan Karatsev in five sets on Saturday. Brooksby has a strangely stylized game, with a shortened service motion and a massive backswing on the forehand that beguiles opponents. He’ll test that style against the best returner in modern tennis.Louis Armstrong STADIUM | 4 p.m.Oscar Otte vs. Matteo BerrettiniOscar Otte, a qualifier, had never moved past the second round of a major tournament until this week, starting his run in the main draw by upsetting the 20th-seeded Lorenzo Sonego in the first round. He will come up against a much stronger opponent, the sixth-seeded Matteo Berrettini of Italy. Berrettini’s breakout performance came at the U.S. Open in 2019, and he seems most at home among the raucous crowds of New York City. His strong serve and brutalist style of play is well suited to faster surfaces, and Otte will be pushed to play more defensively.Shelby Rogers is coming off defeating the top-ranked Ashleigh Barty.Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesArthur Ashe Stadium | 3 p.m.Shelby Rogers vs. Emma RaducanuShelby Rogers had lost to Ashleigh Barty, the world No. 1, all four times they’d played in 2021. On Saturday night, she fought from two breaks down in the third set to win in the tiebreaker, motivated by a crowd that swelled in anticipation after any mistake that Barty made. She will face Emma Raducanu, an 18-year-old Briton, in an attempt to reach her second consecutive U.S. Open quarterfinal. Raducanu blitzed past Sara Sorribes Tormo in the third round, losing only one game in 70 minutes. Raducanu’s second appearance in a major tournament has resulted in yet another visit to the round of 16, and she is in good form to attempt to make a deeper push. More

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    Canadian Tennis Players Excel at the U.S. Open

    Canada’s high-performance tennis program is achieving its goal of producing elite players, several of whom have advanced at the U.S. Open.The Canadian flag is everywhere at the U.S. Open, where Canadian players are winning on courts across the grounds and beyond.On Saturday, Bianca Andreescu won in Louis Armstrong Stadium while Denis Shapovalov waited to play there in the night session. On Friday, Felix Auger-Aliassime beat Roberto Bautista Agut in Armstrong, Vasek Pospisil won at doubles on Court 10, and three Canadian girls won junior qualifying matches at the Cary Leeds Center in the Bronx.The biggest win took place in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Friday, when Leylah Fernandez, a French Open junior champion two years ago, beat No. 3 seed Naomi Osaka to muscle her way toward the front of Canada’s booming tennis program, an assembly line of players that includes four men in the top 60 and six girls in the top 100 of the junior rankings.Not bad for a country with about a tenth of the population of the United States. But Canadian players are pouring over the border and making New York their temporary home.“I’m just glad that there’s so many Canadians going deep in this tournament,” Fernandez said shortly after she had showed the steely nerve it took to oust the defending champion in the world’s biggest tennis stadium. Fernandez, who turns 19 on Monday, is the latest young Canadian to captivate the tennis world, following in the path of Andreescu, who won the 2019 U.S. Open; Auger-Aliassime; Shapovalov; and, before them, Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard.A country of about 37 million, Canada has made a concerted effort over the past several years to develop elite players, and it is working. Most of them pass through Tennis Canada’s high-performance development program, and many were either immigrants themselves or the Canadian-born children of immigrants.Fernandez belongs to that list, too, although her route is unique. Her father and coach, Jorge Fernandez, was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and moved to Montreal with his family when he was a small boy. Fernandez’s mother, Irene Exevea, is of Filipino descent from Toronto.Jorge Fernandez describes himself as a former journeyman professional soccer player in the lower levels of the game, mostly in Latin America. He never knew anything about tennis until his daughter showed interest as a schoolgirl.“She played some soccer in Montreal,” the elder Fernandez said in a telephone interview Saturday, “but I didn’t want her to just follow me. I wanted her to find her own passion.”That turned out to be tennis, but Leylah struggled to gain the favor of the local tennis associations. She was part of a Quebec-based development program for a while, but it dropped her, Jorge said, in part because she was tiny. She still wanted to play.“I told her, ‘It’s OK, we’ll do it ourselves,’” her father said.They plunged ahead on their own, and soon enough, Leylah Fernandez was tearing through the ranks of her age group and several years above it, winning so many tournaments that Tennis Canada officials finally invited her to train with them.But as often happens when parents hand their children over to tennis federations, there were differences of opinion, especially over how much Leylah should play. Ultimately, Jorge Fernandez took his daughter out of the program, although amicably, he says.“I told them we would meet up again,” he explained, “and look, we have.”He continued: “It’s OK to have disagreements. We all wanted the same thing, which is for Leylah to be successful. We just had a different idea of how to do it, for a while. But they have been doing great work. I tip my hat to them with all the success they have had with so many Canadians going through the program.”Bianca Andreescu playing on Saturday.Justin Lane/EPA, via ShutterstockLeylah’s mother thought their daughter would be one of those successes, too. According to Jorge Fernandez, Exevea thought he was crazy to remove his daughter from a program that provided free coaching and more. But he was committed to doing it himself, so he and Leylah and her younger sister, Bianca Jolie, who is 17, continued to train on their own in Montreal. (The oldest, Jodeci, is a dentist in Ohio and did not play tennis competitively).That left the chief bread-winning duties to Exevea, who, unlike Jorge Fernandez, has a university degree. She moved to California so she could earn U.S. dollars and stayed there for three years while Jorge tapped into his knowledge as a former professional athlete to coach his daughters.“Those were difficult years, because they only saw their mother maybe two times a year,” Jorge said. “We finally decided to move to Florida. It’s the Mecca of tennis, and we could have the whole family together again.”To learn the art of tennis and coaching it, Jorge Fernandez immersed himself in the sport, reading texts and watching videos on the internet. His goal was to cultivate a balance between work and fun to ensure that Leylah never got burned out. He taught his daughter, who is 5 feet 6 inches, to study Justine Henin, who is listed at 5-6¾, because it seemed like an appropriate blueprint for success.Despite her size, Leylah Fernandez is a potent ball striker. Her father claims that, pound for pound, Leylah is “the best power hitter on the tour,” and she derives confidence from her strength. Even before she took the court against Osaka, she said she knew she could beat the four-time major champion.“From a very young age, I knew I was able to beat anyone,” she said Friday night, before noting that it was past her bedtime.When she won the French Open junior title in 2019, Leylah Fernandez asked her father if they could celebrate at McDonald’s. Always diligent about nutrition, and in a city known for its culinary expertise, Fernandez chose the fast food restaurant as a way to splurge. Her father agreed.“It was just the two of us,” Jorge said. “It was sweet, but at the same time, the whole family should have been there. It’s one of the difficult things of the tennis life, all the travel.”Jorge Fernandez could not attend his daughter’s victory over Osaka. He was in Florida attending to business. But before she took the court, Leylah called him for the strategic game plan, and he was true to his ethos.“He told me to go on the court, have fun,” she said, and she followed the advice perfectly, flashing a brilliant smile during a relaxed but exuberant speech after the match.For a time, her family had debated moving to Ecuador so that the girls could play for that country. Instead, they retained their loyalty to Canada, and Leylah Fernandez plays on the Canadian team for the Billie Jean King Cup. On Sunday, she will play No. 16 seed Angelique Kerber, a three-time Grand Slam tournament champion, for a spot in the quarterfinals.Already, she and her compatriots have helped raise the profile of Canadian tennis a notch higher.“Our goal here is just to have fun on court,” she said, “to do our best. Hopefully we can inspire kids in Canada to keep going.” More

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    Bianca Andreescu Returns to the U.S. Open With Winning on Her Mind

    Dogged by injuries, the 2019 champion didn’t play a single match last year, but the young Canadian has surrounded herself with a new team focused on keeping her healthy.So much has changed since her first visit, but Bianca Andreescu is still undefeated at the U.S. Open, where she swept to the 2019 title in precociously grand style, defeating Serena Williams in straight sets in the final at age 19.After playing no official matches in 2020, she is back in the third round this year, but is also looking back.“I work on being in the moment, but I do get the flashbacks quite often here,” Andreescu, who practices visualization techniques, told me on Thursday. “I think that’s a good thing because it builds my confidence a little bit, going back and thinking about all that happened in 2019.”She was in the same physical space as she walked the sprawling grounds where she became Canada’s first Grand Slam singles champion, yet she was in a different place. Her support team is almost entirely new: from her agents, Max Eisenbud and Marijn Bal, to her fitness trainer, Abdul Sillah, to her coach, Sven Groeneveld, who was taking copious notes in the stands of Louis Armstrong Stadium on Thursday night as Andreescu defeated Lauren Davis 6-4, 6-4.It felt so familiar, and yet so strange. Andreescu walked into the interview room as if she were intent on remaining incognito, mask on, hoodie up, eyes barely visible. It was the same room that was packed in 2019, camera flashes firing in rapid succession as she and her former coach Sylvain Bruneau posed with the U.S. Open trophy. But on this night, with pandemic health restrictions in place, there were just a handful of masked reporters. No flash bulbs. No Champagne. No buzz.After she finished, we respected the U.S. Open rules, speaking by Zoom for a follow-up interview even though we had just been sitting 12 feet apart in the same room.“I feel like we’re in some kind of Blade Runner movie,” I said.“Exactly,” she said. “It’s just super weird, and it’s crazy that it’s still going on, but you can’t really do much about it.”The pandemic has taken a toll on many professional tennis players, including Andreescu, who tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this year. But her troubles did not begin there.At the end of her breakthrough 2019 season, in which she also won the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., and the Rogers Cup in Toronto, I traveled to Toronto to spend a day with Andreescu and watch her become the first tennis player to receive the Lou Marsh Trophy, awarded to Canada’s top athlete in any sport.But she was limping that day after receiving a platelet rich plasma injection in her ailing left knee, and since then her career has continued to feel like a playground game of one step forward and two steps backward. Injuries, a concern for Andreescu since she was one of the world’s best juniors, have repeatedly knocked her back.Since her return to the tour in 2021, her fortunes have yet to turn in earnest. She had to quarantine for two weeks ahead of the Australian Open at the start of the season after Bruneau tested positive for the coronavirus after the charter flight to Melbourne. Back in form at the Miami Open, she reached the final against Ashleigh Barty only to retire in tears after injuring her ankle. She then missed much of the clay court season after testing positive for Covid-19 herself in April; split with her longtime management agency; lost in the first round of the French Open; split with Bruneau; and then lost in the first round of Wimbledon, too. At 21, she concedes that her love of the game and the tour has dimmed on occasion.“For sure, a couple times this year, when I caught Covid and the part about not being able to see my friends and family for such a long time,” Andreescu said. “My grandma caught Covid. She’s 86. She survived, thankfully, but so many of these things made me question, should I be traveling during this time? But you can’t stop forever, so I tried to deal with everything in the best way I could. Some things I wish I could have done better, but you live and learn, and I’m in a good place physically and mentally right now, and I think that’s all that matters.”Eisenbud, the senior vice president at IMG, is convinced that the best is yet to come.“Listen, you don’t beat Serena at 19 years old in the final of the U.S. Open if you’re not really special,” he said.Andreescu after winning the 2019 U.S. Open singles final.Ben Solomon for The New York TimesThat is undeniable. Andreescu’s beguiling blend of power, touch and explosive movement makes her a transcendent tennis talent. But while she will be the favorite to win in the third round against Greet Minnen, she is still searching for confidence and consistency. That is unsurprising, considering the many moving parts in her game and her lack of experience and match play. She has still played just one full season on tour, and that season in 2019 was also interrupted by injuries.Variety is her trademark — she has all the shots — but she also has a taste for risk and for sharp angles that can lead to flurries of unforced errors. Watching her play and deploy her vast arsenal of weapons can be intoxicating, but there is also the sense that she is winging it, relying on instinct rather than a deep tactical understanding.“I get bored really easily,” Andreescu once told me. “So even on the court I just try to mix it up. That can be a setback and an advantage, because I have a lot of tools in my toolbox so I try to choose the right ones at the right times as best as I can, but I’m still working on it.”Her new team was assembled with input from Eisenbud, who began managing Maria Sharapova when she was 12 and helped her become the highest-earning women’s athlete. He later helped the Chinese star Li Na capitalize on her success.“One commonality around Sharapova’s Grand Slam wins and Li Na’s Grand Slam wins was that everything around the team was calm,” Eisenbud said. “I need to try to get calm water around Bianca.”Eisenbud and Bal actively recruited Andreescu and have been jointly managing her since June 1. Silla, her new fitness trainer, helped Naomi Osaka improve her conditioning and footwork ahead of her first U.S. Open title in 2018. Groeneveld, who is working with Andreescu on a trial basis, is one of the most experienced coaches in tennis. He coached Sharapova in the later stages of her career and helped her manage chronic injuries, which was an important factor for Andreescu.She interviewed Groeneveld and several other coaches by FaceTime earlier this year after she made the difficult decision to part ways with Bruneau.“Sven really stood out right from the start,” she said. “I had what I wanted in a coach written down and what I didn’t want in a coach written down. I made sure to really, really pay attention to this, because I want to get to the next level, and Sven honestly checks all the boxes: Maria Sharapova, injuries, being around on tour a long time, and that experience really, really helps, and I already see it.”To avoid injuries, Andreescu said they have tailored her schedule to make sure that she does not push too hard on the court during practice if she is pushing hard on her fitness. She also has continued working with Kirstin Bauer, an Austrian physiotherapist and osteopath who is the one holdover on Andreescu’s team from 2019, aside from her parents and her dog Coco.“I had so many changes happen with my agency, fitness trainer, coach, and having Kirstin by my side through literally everything I’ve been through the last two and a half years is comforting,” Andreescu said. “We work a lot on prevention.”Staying healthy remains the challenge for Andreescu, and it is nothing new. As a junior, she had back and shoulder injuries as well as stress fractures in her feet that restricted her to non-weight-bearing exercises.“We had an office chair, and we took the back off it and wheeled it on the court, and every day she would spend an hour and work forehand and backhand,” said André Labelle, one of her early coaches. “I think she had a three-month stretch in the chair.”But for all her commitment, she has continued to miss too much playing time as a professional, and though it is easy to imagine her dueling for Grand Slam titles for years to come with the likes of Osaka, Barty and Coco Gauff, that vision only makes sense if Andreescu can improve her staying power. “I’m very impatient,” she said. “I want everything, you know, right away, but I’m getting better with that.” More

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    With Biggest Stars Absent, Miami Open Serves Up Some Chaos

    Top men’s seeds and Naomi Osaka fell earlier than expected, but there was some normalcy: Ashleigh Barty won in women’s singles, successfully defending her title.MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — So what exactly happened at the Miami Open over the past two weeks?Other than the top-seeded Ashleigh Barty walking away with the women’s singles title, something like tennis chaos unfolded at the only significant tournament in North America until August.Where to begin? Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam event winner, lost a match for the first time in more than a year, and on a hardcourt, a surface it seemed she might never lose on again. After the men’s Big Three — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — skipped this tournament, Jannik Sinner of Italy and Hubert Hurkacz of Poland, close friends and doubles partners, dueled in their first ATP Masters 1000 final. Hurkacz blew past Sinner, a player experts have tapped to be an eventual No. 1, 7-6 (4), 6-4.Barty and Bianca Andreescu, who won Grand Slam events in 2019 but barely played in 2020, gave notice they were just about fully back as they met for the first time in the women’s singles final. A 20-year-old with top-class tennis DNA named Sebastian Korda, the son of the former world No. 2 Petr Korda, made the final eight and was the last remaining American.The top two men’s seeds, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, lost in the quarterfinals. Alexander Zverev, the No. 3 seed, lost in the second round after having a bye in the first. Andrey Rublev was the only player in the top 10 of the ATP Tour rankings to make the semifinals, where he lost to Hurkacz in straight sets.Simona Halep, the No. 3 women’s seed, and Sofia Kenin, the No. 4 seed, each won just a single match, and Maria Sakkari, the No. 23 seed, served a bagel to Osaka in the first set of her 6-0, 6-4 quarterfinal win.In short, Miami provided a glimpse of a tennis future that does not include Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Serena Williams, who withdrew from the event after oral surgery: a sport of surprise and entropy.“Everyone can win now,” Rublev said after his quarterfinal win over Korda. “It’s not about ranking.”Rublev was talking about the tournament’s final rounds, but he could have meant the sport. Djokovic and Nadal are still nearly indomitable at big events, but when they skip one, all bets are off. (Federer, 39, has played just one tournament since his two knee operations last year.)Bernard Tomic of Australia said earlier this year that there was not much difference between a player ranked 60 and one ranked 250. It sounded strange, but now seems prescient.Aslan Karatsev, a Russian qualifier, made the semifinals of the Australian Open. Juan Manuel and Francisco Cerundolo, two brothers from Argentina who are ranked outside the top 100, made the finals of tournaments in South America, with Juan Manuel winning a title. Lorenzo Musetti, 19, an Italian ranked 94th, knocked off two players in the top 16 at the Mexican Open.Musetti, though, is only the second-best 19-year-old Italian at the moment: Sinner, the son of a cook and waitress and a surprise semifinalist at the French Open last year, is staking his claim as one of the brightest young players in the game.“He has everything,” Roberto Bautista Agut, the veteran from Spain, said of Sinner after losing to him in three sets in the semifinals. “Big serve. Tall. Moves well. Very good groundstrokes. Mentally great, and he’s improving.”Sinner is 6 feet 2 inches with long arms and legs that make him seem taller, and he has that priceless ability to pivot from defense to offense from nearly anywhere on the court and when his opponent least expects it. On three occasions against Bautista Agut, it looked like Sinner was about to wither, especially when he was down a set and three break points at 3-3 in the second set. Instead, he knotted the game with two winners, including a risky, floating crosscourt backhand that nicked the outside of the line.“Every match has a story,” Sinner said after that win. Later, he said, “Sometimes a few points can decide a match.”Ashleigh Barty, above, played Bianca Andreescu for the first time on Saturday, and beat her in the Miami Open final when Andreescu retired in the second set.Lynne Sladky/Associated PressThe Miami Open was an opportunity to show on a big stage what tennis could eventually look like.“I knew when Novak, Rafa, Roger and Dominic Thiem said they were not going to play, some of the younger guys would have a chance to play really deep,” said Hurkacz, 24, a lanky, pigeon-toed big server who has won two tournaments this year.Hurkacz, who often trains in Florida, was seeded 26th here, but he beat players seeded second, fourth, sixth and 12th in five days. He came back from a set and a service break down to Tsitsipas on a brutally hot day in the quarterfinal; outslugged Rublev in a gutsy performance, on a cool night in the semifinal; then knocked off the game’s latest boy wonder on a bright and breezy Easter afternoon.Sinner served for the first set at 6-5, but Hurkacz broke him at love. Then a series of errors allowed Hurkacz to cruise through the tiebreaker. Hurkacz frustrated Sinner with a serve that kept kicking up above his eyes, and two early service breaks in the second set made the final result come fast.Before the match, Sinner had begged off anointing himself the next big thing in tennis, cautioning that a good 10 days in Miami guaranteed nothing. “The road is long,” he said. “I know that. My team knows that.”Barty, 24, and Andreescu, 20, also know that. The two young Grand Slam champions had never played head-to-head before Saturday’s final, though the showdown proved an anticlimax. Andreescu, who struggled to find her rhythm against Barty’s relentless groundstrokes, appeared to roll her foot and ankle while down, 2-0, in the second set and defaulted two games later, giving Barty her second consecutive Miami Open title, 6-3, 4-0.Barty, the world No. 1 from Australia, opted not to play when tennis returned last August, because of her country’s strict quarantine requirements for anyone returning home during the pandemic. She played little tennis in 2020 from March until October, when she began to prepare for the Australian summer of tennis. She kept her top ranking only because of a pandemic rule change that allowed players to maintain their points from 2019.She won a tuneup for the Australian Open, but lost in the quarterfinals of the Grand Slam event and in the first round of a tournament the next week. Barty has gained confidence. In Miami, she barely used the slices she tends to hit when she loses her edge. She does not plan to return to Australia until the fall so she can avoid the country’s mandatory two-week lockdown for international arrivals.“I knew eventually I would find it,” Barty said of her form and the patience with which she approached her return to the game. “I knew it might not be in the third week or the 10th week or the 20th week.”Andreescu, a Canadian, caught the injury bug shortly after winning the 2019 United States Open. It kept her from last year’s summer and fall events. In Australia, she showed flashes of her shotmaking prowess but was too inconsistent to play deep into events. In Miami, she prevailed in four three-set matches to make the final, surviving a third-set tiebreaker in the semifinal against Sakkari that finished past midnight. Then came another injury, a final twist in this strange tournament.She tried to play through the pain, but eventually gave in to her trainer, Abdul Sillah, who urged her from courtside not to risk further damage. “Abdul basically saved me from myself,” said Andreescu, who crouched and cried when she knew the end had come.With the Miami tournament over, the tours are planning to shift to the clay- and grass-court seasons in Europe, but events there are shrouded in uncertainty. Italy and France are in various stages of lockdowns as the European Union struggles to distribute the coronavirus vaccines. While organizers say the tournaments, the Italian Open and the French Open, which is the next Grand Slam event of the year, remain on track, it’s not clear whether government officials will allow them to take place.While Nadal and Djokovic will no doubt quickly attempt to restore order, Federer has yet to say how much clay-court tennis he will play. His focus, he has said, is being healthy for Wimbledon.Osaka, the winner of two of the last three Grand Slam events, has never won a tournament on those surfaces, leaving the door open for any number of her competitors to catch up to her.“I have more freedom on the clay and grass because I am still learning a lot,” Osaka said last week.In other words, expect more chaos. More

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    At the Australian Open, Bianca Andreescu Is the Great Unknown

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyAt the Australian Open, Bianca Andreescu Is the Great UnknownShe won the United States Open in 2019 but has barely played since then because of injury and the pandemic. Yet it is after long layoffs she has been the most dangerous.Bianca Andreescu of Canada won her first match in 15 months, a three-set nail-biter against Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu at the Australian Open on Monday.Credit…Paul Crock/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesFeb. 9, 2021, 7:45 a.m. ETMELBOURNE, Australia — As Bianca Andreescu vaulted from No. 152 in the world to the United States Open champion during 2019, she appeared to be playing with a tennis angel on her shoulder.And then good fortune left Andreescu, the 20-year-old Canadian, shortly after she lifted that U.S. Open trophy.Andreescu sustained a torn meniscus that October. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which, combined with the knee injury, kept her from competing for all of 2020. She trained through the fall and into the new year to hit the ground running upon landing in Australia. Then her coach tested positive for the virus shortly after he arrived on a flight from Abu Dhabi, sending Andreescu into a hard lockdown for 14 days because of their contact. She pulled out of an Australian Open warm-up tournament last week rather than risk injury by doing too much too soon. “It’s super easy to ask yourself: ‘Why, why, why? Or what is the reason?’” Andreescu said recently as her quarantine was winding down. “Some of these things you cannot control.”Andreescu was one of 72 players who could not leave their hotel rooms, even to train, for two weeks. Several former Grand Slam winners and 21 women over all in the main draw were classified as close contacts to those who tested positive for the coronavirus after landing in Australia, which put them in them hard lockdown.Women’s tennis has been something of a free-for-all for years. Factor in a forced lockdown and the return of a player who a year and a half ago seemed to have limitless potential, and the uncertainty becomes nearly unprecedented.A dozen women have won a Grand Slam singles title over the past four seasons. At the French Open in October, Iga Swiatek, 19, of Poland, entered the tournament ranked No. 54 and won the championship. Only Naomi Osaka of Japan and Simona Halep of Romania have won more than one Grand Slam title since 2017.But no one embodies that uncertainty here at the 2021 Australian Open more than Andreescu, who passed her first round test on Monday when she won her first match in 15 months, a three-set nail-biter against Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania.Andreescu will face Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan in the second round.Credit…Alana Holmberg for The New York TimesThere were moments when Andreescu created shots and found the unseen angles, and plenty of others when she looked overwhelmed by a player ranked 138th in the world. She faces Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan on Wednesday (Tuesday evening, Eastern time).To Mary Carillo, the former player and longtime tennis analyst, Andreescu is among the most compelling players in the tournament. Carillo compared her to Juan Martín del Potro, who beat Roger Federer to win the U.S. Open when he was just 20, then sustained a series of injuries and never fulfilled the promise of that triumph.“When you see players like Juan-Martín and Bianca burn a hole in the sport the way they did, you know they’ve got the goods,” Carillo said. “You want to watch them put their games up against the very best. You know they can win majors. You want them to hang around and prove it was real, time after time, year after year, become one of the true greats.”Everyone in tennis knows Andreescu has talent to burn. She has power from the baseline and on her serve. She has the athleticism to chase down balls in the corners. At any moment, from any spot on the court, she can cut a slice with so much spin it dances when it lands. All this, plus the experience of winning a Grand Slam title, and she has only played about 50 WTA singles matches.But coming to Australia, Andreescu had not played a match since October 2019. The inactivity would leave most players with little more than a puncher’s chance for success. Andreescu, though, has shown a freakish ability to shake off rust and play deep into tournaments. A back injury kept her out of competition for two months in the fall of 2018. When she came back she won two titles on the lower tier I.T.F. circuit.In 2019, an injury to her right shoulder largely sidelined her from April until August. She returned for the Rogers Cup in Toronto, one of the most high profile tournaments outside of the four majors, and won after Serena Williams retired from the final with back spasms four games into the match. Then she reeled off another seven consecutive wins and became the U.S. Open champion.That is not normal. Angelique Kerber of Germany, the three-time Grand Slam winner, said that when injuries cause long layoffs, it can take months to find the motivation to get on court and go to your limit. “I think that’s the hardest challenge,” Kerber said.Andreescu can burn hot. She breaks rackets sometimes in practice, though fewer than she used to. She said she cried Sunday night in anticipation of her first round match here in Australia.The first 48 hours after she learned that her coach, Sylvain Bruneau, had tested positive were tough to grapple with. As she and others on her team continued to test negative, Andreescu snapped back into preparation mode.She did strength and fitness sessions on the stationary bicycle in her room with her trainer over Zoom. Her coach, who has remained healthy, put her through shadow hitting sessions, allowing her to work on her footwork. A devotee of visual imagery training, she spent hours imagining herself playing matches.Andreescu, pictured in Toronto after her U.S. Open win in 2019, practiced visualizing past wins to boost her confidence heading into the Australian Open.Credit…Carlos Osorio/ReutersShe watched her matches from 2019 and reliving those wins boosted her confidence. She also read — Charles Duhigg’s “Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity,” and Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100” — and played Call of Duty and NBA2K on her Xbox. She fiddled around with her new hobby, composing music.She watched the 2020 U.S. Open and the French Open on television with a mix of hurt and hope. Not being on the court bothered her, but as she took in the action, she pictured herself in that moment again and it felt good.And on Monday, when the two-hour, three-set test was over, she sunk into an ice bath and considered the silver lining in this first, uneasy duel. “Those matches are super good for me,” she said. It really shows that I can scramble when I really need to, or if there is some pressure I can dig my way through it somehow.”AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More

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    Players to Watch at the Australian Open

    AdvertisementContinue reading the main storySupported byContinue reading the main storyPlayers to Watch at the Australian OpenWe know who’s likely to be in the spotlight at 2021’s first Grand Slam event, but here are six players who could be surprises.Daniil Medvedev on his way to winning the ATP Finals in November.Credit…Toby Melville/ReutersFeb. 6, 2021, 6:46 p.m. ETThe Australian Open has largely belonged to just two men since 2004, with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer winning 14 of 17 titles. With Federer sidelined by an injury, Djokovic is the obvious favorite, and there are just two other clear-cuts: Rafael Nadal, who captured his 20th Grand Slam singles title last year in France and could claim his record 21st in Australia, and Dominic Thiem, who earned his first at the 2020 United States Open. (Thiem also beat Nadal in last year’s Australian Open and pushed Djokovic to five sets in the final.)The women’s draw is more open, but it has a few players in the spotlight. As with the men’s side, it starts with the top three in the rankings: Australia’s own Ash Barty, the world No. 1, who did not play in 2020 after the lockdown; Simona Halep, who reached the semifinals of the Australian Open last year, and had a win streak of 17 matches and three titles; and Naomi Osaka, winner of three Grand Slam events, including the 2019 Australian Open.Then there’s Serena Williams, whom people will watch because of her all-around greatness. If she wins this year she will tie for the most Grand Slam singles titles among women with 24.But there are less-recognizable players who could have deep runs into the second week and might even win. Here are six to watch in 2021.Daniil MedvedevThe men’s Top 10 has several rising stars like Stefanos Tsitsipas or Alexander Zverev, but Daniil Medvedev is the best bet to take home the title. To win, a player will likely have to take down two of the top three seeds, and he is the best candidate.While Medvedev’s 16-19 record versus Top 10 players may sound poor, it’s the highest for a player without a Slam. He’s winless against Federer, so that absence improves Medvedev’s odds.Medvedev, the 6-foot-6 Russian with the big serve and persistent baseline game, emerged as one of the game’s top returners and a Top 5 player in 2019. Grinding his way to two Masters 1000 titles, he also reached six straight finals, including the U.S. Open, where he took Nadal to five sets.Most notable was his triumph in November at the ATP Finals, where he had five straight wins, over Diego Schwartzman, Zverev, Thiem, Nadal and Djokovic. That level of sustained excellence gives him an edge.Credit…James Ross/EPA, via ShutterstockNick KyrgiosKyrgios, of Australia, has an overpowering serve, making him especially dangerous on the Open’s hard courts. His hard-court winning percentage is among the highest of players competing at the tournament. But he has so far failed to live up to his enormous potential. Temperamental and undisciplined, he has fallen through the years from 13th in the world to 47th.At 25, he’s still young, and he is prodigiously talented.His athleticism and flash always make him riveting to watch. If he can stay focused for two weeks, he’s 5-5 lifetime versus Nadal and Djokovic, which should give the front-runners pause.Credit…Julian Finney/Getty ImagesTaylor FritzThe younger players who could make a mark in Australia include Denis Shapovalov, Félix Auger-Aliassime, Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz. The most likely American would be 30th-ranked Taylor Fritz. Fritz has wins over Thiem, Zverev and top veterans like Fabio Fognini and Schwartzman. Last year, Fritz reached the finals in Acapulco, Mexico. A quarterfinal slot might be a stretch, but if he survives until the second week, it will herald a big step forward.Credit…Lintao Zhang/Getty ImagesBianca AndreescuThe cancellation of WTA’s year-end tournament gave the top players a long break before the Australian Open. But no top contender has been off the court as long as the eighth-ranked Bianca Andreescu, who has been sidelined with injuries since 2019.That year, she won 31 of her first 34 matches, including the BNP Paribas Open as a wild card because of a wide array of shots and a fearlessness in going for them. She capped her rise by upsetting Williams in the U.S. Open finals. If her shoulder and knee are healthy, she has the aggressiveness, the power and the Grand Slam experience to tear through the tournament.Credit…Thomas Samson/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesVictoria AzarenkaShe may be ranked only 13th, but she is, once again, a definite threat. Winner of the Australian Open championship in 2012 and 2013, Azarenka reached No. 1 in the world. She was the game’s top returner, breaking her opponent’s serve more than half the time. But she fell off the map after having a baby and then getting caught in a custody battle. When she did play, she struggled, reaching the fourth round of a major just once.But in 2020, Azaernka rediscovered her magic in a five-tournament run, where she won a title, reached two more finals, including the U.S. Open, and beat six players in the Top 20.Credit…Pool photo by Riccardo AntimianiGarbiñe MuguruzaShe finished 2019 ranked 36th. Then she went to the Australian Open in 2020 and reminded everyone that she was a former No. 1 and a Wimbledon and French Open champion. Muguruza used improved net play to topple the Top 10 players Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens and Halep en route to the finals. She lost to Sofia Kenin.Muguruza’s big serve and potent, albeit high-risk, ground strokes also looked impressive in Rome in September, and she defeated Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff, Johanna Konta and Azarenka before falling to Halep. With both of those 2020 tournaments, Muguruza, now ranked 15th, showed she still had what it takes for a deep Grand Slam run.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More