By HOWARD FENDRICH
AP Tennis Writer
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Bianca Andreescu traces the path that brought her back to the tennis tour after a mental health break — and, on Monday, put her back in the win column thanks to beating a seeded opponent at the Australian Open — to what she calls “an ‘Aha’ moment” on a beach in Costa Rica during a spiritual retreat nearly a year ago.
Here, then, is how the 22-year-old Canadian described that epiphany in an interview with The Associated Press at Melbourne Park: “I am meant to play the sport and use it as a platform to be an inspiration for others.”
Andreescu, who beat Serena Williams in the 2019 U.S. Open final as a teenager, went through a series of health issues, including catching COVID-19, that derailed her career in 2020 and slowed her in 2021, too. She also split from her long-time coach. All in all, there was a lot going on — after beating No. 25 seed Marie Bouzkova 6-2, 6-4 at Court 3 on Monday, Andreescu used the word “hectic” to describe that period — and she went six months without playing a match from October 2021 to April 2022, including sitting out last year’s Australian Open.
“That was when I started to ask myself the question: Is this worth it? Is this life worth it? Because I was very stressed out with many things: People in my life; the way I was looking at myself in the mirror,” Andreescu said. “Just holding a tennis racket, I didn’t feel happy anymore. Or content. Because usually, going on the court is my getaway place — and it stopped feeling like that.”
She realized she needed to re-evaluate where she was and where she was headed.
“Do I keep pushing and pushing and hope for the best? Or do I take a step back? So that’s what I did. I took a break. And I did other things outside of tennis. I did a lot of charity work. I traveled to a few places. Hung out with friends I hadn’t hung out with in two or three years. I started playing soccer again. I did some skating. I started martial arts. I did dancing. A bunch of other things. And it really made me appreciate tennis even more,” Andreescu said with a wide smile. “I honestly didn’t know when I was going to pick up a racket again.”
During her time in Costa Rica last February, Andreescu found a new frame of mind.
“I felt much better in 2022 than I did in 2021, when after losses, I felt so discouraged,” she said. “Now I just want to get back on court. I feel very motivated.”
Sure seemed that way against Bouzkova, a U.S. Open quarterfinalist last year.
Andreescu mixed up her shots and overpowered her foe when opting for big cuts on groundstrokes.
“Just didn’t give me much space to breathe and to sort of get my momentum going,” Bouzkova said.
Andreescu said she felt a mix of nerves and relief at the end Monday, because she really wanted to win.
Which she did and now will face 100th-ranked Cristina Bucsa of Spain as the journey continues.
“I like to say what my mom always tells me: ‘Follow your heart.’ That’s what I did. I have a strong intuition, I would say, and I feel like a lot of other people do. So trust your gut,” Andreescu said, pointing her interlocking fingers toward her heart. “If you don’t feel good in something for a while — I didn’t feel good for two or three months — I would say to take a step back, if you can.”
BIG STEP FOR CHINA’S MEN
Teenage qualifier Shang Juncheng became the first Chinese man to win a main-draw match at the Australian Open in the professional era, beating Germany’s Oscar Otte 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5.
“I think it’s huge for Chinese men’s tennis,” said the 17-year-old Shang, who hit 34 winners. “We have had really good players from the women’s side, but not really big names in the men’s.”
Added Shang: “Hopefully we can do something big in the future.”
Shang, the 2021 U.S. Open junior runner-up, is the first 17-year-old to win his first Grand slam match since current No. 1-ranked Carlos Alcaraz did it at the Australian Open two years ago.
“Quite a big accomplishment,” Shang said. “Looking up to Carlos, he’s the best player in the world right now. Just watching him play on the court really inspires me, inspires the young, young players.”
China placed three men in the main draw of a Grand Slam event for the first time.
Wu Yibing lost his first-round match to France’s Corentin Moutet on Monday. Zhang Zhizhen plays American Ben Shelton on Tuesday.
WATCHING THE BILLS
Jessica Pegula prepared for her first-round victory at the Australian Open by watching on TV as the Buffalo Bills edged the Miami Dolphins 34-31 in their opening game of the NFL playoffs.
The No. 3-seeded Pegula, whose parents own the Bills and the NHL’s Sabres, said she woke up at 7 a.m. Monday in Melbourne — which was 3 p.m. Sunday in New York — and watched most of the second half before going on to defeat Jacqueline Cristian 6-0, 6-1 at Margaret Court Arena.
“It was a tough game. Not the prettiest of wins,” Pegula said about the Bills. “Definitely an ugly win, I think.”
“It’s like first game, playoffs, everyone is kind of nervous, a lot of tension,” she added, likening it to the jitters before an initial match at a Grand Slam tournament.
“It was fun obviously for them to get that win before I went on court,” Pegula said. “It wouldn’t have really affected me, I don’t think, but I would have just been annoyed that they lost.”
Associated Press freelancer Simon Cambers contributed to this report.
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