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    Bianca Andreescu’s Extended Break From Tennis Has Served Her Well

    Despite losing to Iga Swiatek, the top women’s player, at the Italian Open, Andreescu is heading to the French Open in a healthier place, mentally and physically.ROME — Bianca Andreescu’s first Italian Open had just come to an understandable halt in the quarterfinals against Iga Swiatek, a steamroller disguised as a tennis star.But even after failing to prevent the top-ranked Swiatek from extending her winning streak to 26 matches, Andreescu still took a seat in the Roman sunshine with a broad smile on her face.Defeat at this stage does not have the same hard edge that defeat has had in other phases of her career.“Honestly, I’m just fired up to get back out there and play her again,” Andreescu said in an interview after her loss, 7-6 (2), 6-0, on Friday. “If I look at myself a year ago, there’s just been so much progress in the way I’m handling being back on tour and my wins and my losses. I’m just super motivated. I want to go back on court right now and work on being more aggressive or whatnot.”Andreescu, a 21-year-old Canadian from the Toronto suburbs, remains one of the great talents in tennis, which she made abundantly clear in 2019 by winning the U.S. Open women’s singles title in her first attempt, defeating Serena Williams in straight sets.Ranked a career-high No. 4 in the month that followed, she will be No. 72 on Monday but still has that beguiling blend of finesse and punch and a rare ability to shift gears and spins. She also has powerful legs reminiscent of her role model Kim Clijsters that help her cover the court explosively and generate big-time pace despite lacking the leverage of taller players (she is 5-foot-6).“There’s no shot she cannot hit,” said Daniela Hantuchová, an analyst and former top five player who was commentating courtside on Friday as Andreescu and Swiatek played on tour for the first time.“In that first set, Bianca was not far from her top level at all,” Hantuchová said. “For me, that was the best set of tennis in the women’s tournament so far. In a way, it almost feels like a mirror against a mirror. They have different technique, but they have their routines between the points mentally, and tactically they know exactly what they are trying to do out there. Both are great athletes, and I kept saying during the match that I hope we see this matchup more often. It would be a wonderful rivalry to have.”But until now, Andreescu, unlike the 20-year-old Swiatek, has been only a part-time threat. There have been a series of injuries, a career-long concern, and more recently the malaise that moved her to take her most-recent extended break after the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in October 2021, before returning for a tournament in Stuttgart last month.She used her time off tour to do community service, volunteering in a children’s hospital and a shelter for victims of domestic violence. She went to a wellness retreat in Costa Rica and focused on developing more mental tools to complement the visualization and meditation work that she, like Swiatek, started during her junior career and has cited as one of the keys to her precocious, if intermittent, success.Andreescu after defeating Serena Williams to win the U.S. Open women’s singles title in 2019.Jason Szenes/EPA, via Shutterstock“After Indian Wells, I legit, like, didn’t want to play anymore,” she said. “I don’t know if I was being dramatic, but that’s just how I was feeling in the moment. But now, I’m just super happy that I didn’t stop, because having that time off really made me appreciate my time on court more now, because that was a decision that came from me. It wasn’t anything external like injuries or an illness or whatever. It was my call, and so I felt very empowered, and that was a big step in me taking more control over my life and just not putting pressure on myself and just enjoying myself.“During that break, I did basically everything I love to do, and I told myself if I do come back, I want to be in that same mind-set. Obviously, I want to be competitive and upset if I lose for instance, but I want to also feel that I enjoy myself on court and that I’m more motivated after a loss instead of just like crawling in my bed and just like crying all night, which I was doing last year.”Andreescu, like her fellow tennis star Naomi Osaka and some other prominent athletes of their generation, has been open about the mental-health challenges she faces. Three tournaments into her latest comeback, Andreescu is clearly in a better place and will head into the French Open with momentum on the red clay that suits her varied game. She arrived at Friday’s interview with no tape on her body or ice packs in tow.“Nothing,” she said. “I’m just super grateful for my body especially, because that’s been a huge problem. But I do see myself being a great clay-court player if I just continue doing well and working hard in practice and believing in myself.”The challenge on tour — a 10-month test of endurance and resilience — is to maintain the health and enthusiasm.Her team, headed by the veteran coach Sven Groeneveld, is focused on keeping her fresh and, according to Andreescu, also on calling her bluffs.“They can call me out without me becoming defensive, and I think that really helps,” she said.Groeneveld, whose highest-profile pupil in recent years was the now-retired Maria Sharapova, declined to comment on Andreescu because they are “still early” in their relationship. But he has a systematic approach to his work, sitting courtside during matches and noting the score point by point along with the key patterns of play and other details, including a player’s lapses in concentration.“He could write like 10 books with all the notes he’s taking. It’s hilarious,” Andreescu said.Swiatek, right, meeting Andreescu at the net after winning their quarterfinal match.Alex Pantling/Getty ImagesAndreescu, as Canada’s first and only Grand Slam singles champion, has already had a book written about her called “Bianca Andreescu: She the North,” published in 2019, and has written one herself, a picture book published last year titled “Bibi’s Got Game: A Story about Tennis, Meditation and a Dog Named Coco.”But with the surprise retirement of the reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion Ashleigh Barty earlier this season, the leaders of the women’s game can only hope that Andreescu’s tennis story is just beginning.She has an incandescent game as was clear to Hantuchová and anyone else who watched the opening set on Friday before Swiatek kicked into a gear that Andreescu was not ready to match, at least not yet.“She clearly gained some confidence from that first set,” Andreescu said. “I was trying to be more aggressive, but at least in the second set I was missing by inches. But she’s on a 25-match streak, well make that 26 now, for a reason.” More

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    Rafael Nadal Falls Apart on Clay, Just in Time for the French Open

    Nadal, playing in pain in a loss to Denis Shapovalov at the Italian Open, came away downbeat and pensive with the year’s second Grand Slam event less than two weeks away.ROME — Quick and dominant in the first set against Denis Shapovalov, Rafael Nadal was quite the opposite down the stretch at the Italian Open on Thursday night.Late to the ball. Limping between points. Grimacing and wincing even on changeovers. His distress was so visible as the double faults and unforced errors piled up late in the final set that even the Canadian fans sitting high in the center court stands were offering up sympathetic applause for Nadal as their compatriot Shapovalov put the final touches on his victory, 1-6, 7-5, 6-2, in the round of 16.Shapovalov, an elastic and explosive left-hander ranked No. 16, has the tools to trouble even a healthy Nadal. He beat him in their first match in 2017 when Shapovalov was still a teenager, and should have beaten him in last year’s round of 16 at the Italian Open when he failed to convert two match points. He also pushed Nadal to five sets at this year’s Australian Open.But this was far from a healthy Nadal, with his chronic left foot problem, known as Müller-Weiss disease, resurfacing on his favorite surface. With the French Open looming, his mood in the aftermath was as downbeat and pensive as I can recall in nearly 20 years of following his career.“I imagine there will come a time when my head will say ‘Enough,’” Nadal, a 10-time Italian Open champion, said in Spanish, pursing his lips and shaking his head. “Pain takes away your happiness, not only in tennis but in life. And my problem is that many days I live with too much pain.”Nadal said he also had to live with taking “a ton of anti-inflammatories daily to give myself the ability to train.”“That is my reality,” he said. “And there have been many days, like today, when the moment comes that I can’t do it.”Nadal struggling in the third set against Shapovalov.Fabio Frustaci/EPA, via ShutterstockHe finished with 34 unforced errors and just 13 winners on Thursday, and the question now is whether the most successful clay-courter in history will even be able to play at the French Open, the Grand Slam tournament he has won a record 13 times.“I’m going to keep dreaming about that goal,” Nadal said of the tournament. “The negative thing is today it’s not possible to play for me, but maybe in two days things are better. That’s the thing with what I have on my foot.”The French Open will begin in nine days on May 22, although Nadal might not have to play until May 24 because the French Open, which starts on a Sunday, stages its first round over three days.Though Nadal, who will turn 36 next month, has often shown astonishing fighting spirit and recuperative powers, this will be a challenge like no other for him in Paris in the springtime.“Definitely tough to see him in pain there at the end; I never want to see that, especially with a great legend like Rafa,” said Shapovalov, who still had to produce bold tennis and big serves to win on Thursday. “Hopefully he’s OK. He brings so much to our sport. Hopefully he’s fit and ready to go for the French.”The only time Nadal has triumphed at Roland Garros without winning a clay-court tournament earlier in the year was in 2020, the pandemic-shortened season when the start of the French Open was moved to October and nearly the entire clay-court season was canceled.This year, the schedule has been back to normal but not for Nadal. After a torrid start to the season, with 20 straight victories and a record 21st Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open, his clay-court campaign was delayed by a stress fracture in his ribs that kept him from competing or practicing normally for six weeks.He returned for the Madrid Open this month and was upset by the 19-year-old Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz in the quarterfinals and has now experienced his earliest defeat at the Italian Open since 2008, when Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former No. 1 who is now Alcaraz’s coach, surprised Nadal in the second round.Nadal went on to win the 2008 French Open anyway, overwhelming his archrival Roger Federer in the final, but Nadal had already won the titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Hamburg that year.This season, he is short on matches and victories on clay while established threats like Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, and new ones like Alcaraz, have established firmer footing.Shapovalov, left, chatting with Nadal at the end of their match. “Definitely tough to see him in pain there at the end,” Shapovalov said.Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press“Ultimately even the greatest players can’t beat Father Time,” said Brad Stine, the veteran American coach now working with Tommy Paul. “It’s getting to that point for Rafa. What he did in Australia was beyond exceptional, but I think we have been seeing the collateral damage of his great start to the season. If healthy, he is still a favorite week in and week out, but that if is a big one. ‘If the body breaks down’ is not included in Kipling’s poem.”That is a reference to “If,” an excerpt from which is posted at the players’ entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court.It is difficult after 15 years of watching Nadal nearly always prevail over adversity and the opposition at Roland Garros to imagine that he truly won’t find a way to pose a challenge.“I will fight for it,” he said grimly. “I will continue to believe during this week and a half.”What is clear is that, for a change, he should not be the favorite. “No way,” said Mark Petchey, the veteran coach and analyst. “Lots of co-favorites and players with genuine chances to win.”His longer list includes the defending champion, Djokovic; last year’s other finalist, Tsitsipas; Alcaraz; Alexander Zverev; Casper Ruud; and the young Italian Jannik Sinner.Nadal, since losing to Djokovic in a four-set semifinal in Paris last June, has played just five matches on clay, losing two of them.Watching him struggle, then eventually hobble on Thursday, was a reminder that nothing is eternal, not even Nadal on the surface that he has made his own. 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    Serena Williams Loses First Match at Italian Open

    Her 1,000th career singles match, against Nadia Podoroska at the Italian Open, was a frustrating reminder of what is left to accomplish, and how hard it will be.Serena Williams has come a historically long way since she made her WTA Tour debut at age 14. She has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles and 50 other tour titles; occupied the No. 1 ranking for 319 weeks; and become one of the cultural touchstones of her time and one of the greatest athletes of any time.There is, at this advanced stage, much to celebrate in her singular journey. But her 1,000th career singles match, played on Wednesday on a breezy afternoon at the Italian Open, was an often-frustrating reminder of just how far she has to go to resume winning the game’s biggest prizes, against the odds, at age 39.Seeded and ranked eighth, Williams has turned into a part-time tennis pro. She makes intermittent appearances on the circuit while her younger rivals continue to grind away and improve day by day and round by round, even in the midst of a pandemic.Wednesday’s loss in Rome against Nadia Podoroska was Williams’s first match in nearly three months. Her desire has not dimmed, as her shrieks, grunts and clenched fists made clear. But her power to intimidate has diminished, and though Podoroska had never faced Williams, she stared down the challenge to win, 7-6 (6), 7-5, in the round of 32.“It’s an honor to play against her,” Podoroska said. “I saw her playing since I was a child.”She missed Williams’s first match on tour, however. Podoroska, an unseeded 24-year-old Argentine, was not yet born when Williams played in the qualifying tournament in Quebec City, Canada, on Oct. 28, 1995, losing to another American teenager, Annie Miller.Miller won, 6-1, 6-1, in less than an hour.“I didn’t play like I meant to play,” Williams said then.More than 25 years later, the same sentiment surfaced in Rome, one of Williams’s favorite cities. Her signature shot — her fearsome first serve — failed her repeatedly. She put only 48 percent of her first serves in play, forcing the issue under pressure and casting increasingly exasperated looks at her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, in the nearly empty stands on center court.Even when Williams did make a first serve, she won just 62 percent of the points — an ominously low figure for her and a tribute to Podoroska’s solid returns and remarkable defensive skills on clay.“It was definitely kind of good to go the distance and try to be out there, but clearly I can do legions better,” Williams said.Podoroska grew up playing on clay in Argentina, and it showed as she slid expertly into groundstrokes and changed direction quickly. She understands how to construct points on clay, and her kick serve and heavy topspin forehand are well suited to the game’s grittiest surface, as she proved last year with a surprise run to the semifinals at the French Open.“Of course, that helps me,” Podoroska said of that breakthrough. “I feel a lot of confidence playing on clay courts.”But Williams, in her prime, overwhelmed many a clay-court specialist, breaching defenses with full-cut forehands off short returns and juicy second serves. She could not get the timing or formula quite right on Wednesday, even if Podoroska dropped hints that she might not be ready to beat the best women’s player of the 21st century.Podoroska served for the first set at 5-4 and was broken. She then lost a 6-3 lead in the tiebreaker as Williams saved three set points, but at 6-6, Williams steered an edgy, off-balance forehand just wide down the line. Podoroska closed out the set with a good serve and a forehand winner.In the second set, Podoroska served for the match at 5-3 and was broken at love, making three unforced errors. Williams then held at love to 5-5. Those who have followed her know what this sort of scenario typically means: a ferocious fight back to a three-set victory.Podoroska, right, grew up playing on clay, and it showed against Williams.Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesBut these are different days. Podoroska won a great scrambling point with a backhand reflex volley and went on to hold serve. With Williams serving to stay in the match, Podoroska hit a bold and precise forehand inside-out winner from deep to go up by 0-30. Williams lost the next two points with glaring errors: an ill-judged low forehand swing volley and a tentative forehand unforced error.How often has Williams been broken at love in the final game of a match?Answer: Not often.“I’ve been training for months, but it feels different on clay to make that last adjustment,” she said. “Finding the rhythm, even sliding and confidence with that, with movement, and just not wanting to break my ankle when I moved. That’s always like a little struggle in the first two matches, and then I’m raring to go.”The trouble is, she played only one match in Rome. A bigger problem is that there are so many hungry young players full of talent and dreams who no longer wilt in the face of Williams’s power and presence.She last competed in February, losing to a 23-year-old Naomi Osaka in a semifinal of the Australian Open, another match in which Williams’s first-serve percentage dipped precipitously.She had expected to play more on hardcourts in March. But the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., was postponed, and she withdrew from the Miami Open, citing unplanned dental surgery.“Maybe I do need a few more matches,” Williams said. “I’m going to try and figure that out with my team and my coach and see what we would like to do.”Her next move is probably accepting a wild card into the WTA event in Parma, Italy, next week, which would give her more competition before the French Open, which begins May 30 in Paris. For now, she has played just three tournaments in the past eight months.That might have been enough at one stage, given the gap between Williams and the field. But the gap is gone, and a busier tennis schedule is essential if she is truly committed to playing (and winning) into her 40s. It took her less than two years to get from 800 career singles matches to 900. It took nearly five years to get from 900 to 1,000.Her 851-149 career record remains a work of art, but nothing in sports is eternal, even in Rome, the Eternal City. More