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Bianca Andreescu's shouts of “Let's go!” and “Come on!” rang through the mostly empty arena at the Australian Open, heralding her first appearance at a tournament in 15 months.
Also making it clear the 2019 U.S. Open champion was back on the scene: The clutch play she displayed at the most pivotal of moments at Melbourne Park on Monday, serving at 3-all, love-40 in the third set of a first-round match against Mihaela Buzarnescu.
Andreescu produced a pair of forehand winners and a backhand winner right there to start a five-point run that gave her that game — and a three-game run that gave her the match by a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 score.
When it ended, Andreescu closed her eyes and covered her face with both hands. Then she sat in her sideline seat, eyes welling, and bowed her head for a moment of reflection.
“That moment over there was just me realizing how all of it was worth it,” Andreescu said. "I never gave up.”
She should be excited. As should her entire sport. Because no matter how long the No. 8-seeded Andreescu stays in the draw, here is all that's important: One of the most promising talents in tennis has returned.
On Monday, Andreescu showed off the powerful strokes, gritty demeanor and match smarts that carried her to a Grand Slam title as a teen with a victory over Serena Williams in the final at Flushing Meadows in September 2019. A month later, Andreescu tore the meniscus in her left knee and was gone from the tour.
"She has a bright future. She’s really young; rather incredibly mature. I’ve always said I think her light burns brightly,” said Williams, whose quest for a 24th major title began with a 6-1, 6-1 win over Laura Siegemund. “She really has a great game to continue to win more Grand Slams.”
There are other returns worth celebrating as the 2021 Grand Slam season gets started, including that of another Canadian woman: Rebecca Marino, Andreescu's frequent practice partner and dinner companion in Australia.
Marino is a former top 40 player who left the tour for nearly five years because of depression, then dealt with a serious foot injury after competing again. She beat Australian wild-card entry Kimberly Birrell 6-0, 7-6 (9) in the first round, Marino's initial major championship appearance in eight years.
“Talking about people who didn’t always have it easy — she’s one of them,” said Andreescu's coach, Sylvain Bruneau.
Reasons vary for extended absences in any sport or any line of work, of course, but Andreescu and Marino both represent an admirable drive to get to where they once were.
Something else they share: gratitude for a fresh chance.
“What I would tell other people is that period of your life is not forever,” the 30-year-old Marino said, “and if you do the right things to get yourself in a better mental state, whether it's just talking or other different steps to take care of your mental health, it's obviously very important. I feel like had I not done that, I wouldn’t be in this position that I am now.”
While Marino, who is ranked outside the top 300, won three times in qualifying to get into the Australian Open, then played one warmup match at Melbourne Park, Andreescu headed to the main event cold.
“It would have been good for her to play some matches before the big tournament," said Bruneau, who tested positive for COVID-19 last month, which meant Andreescu wasn't allowed to leave her hotel for two weeks. “Break the ice and just face the music and pressure, and all of that. And it was a bummer.”
Andreescu spent time in lockdown playing the video game Call of Duty and watching matches of hers from 2019.
That helped her get “into the mood, into the mindset” and “just get in character” to compete.
Seemed to do the trick, by the look of things Monday.
“Today’s match wasn’t easy at all,” Andreescu said. "I’m super, super happy how I fought it out.”
Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
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