There’s a point, somewhere after being great at their sport, where athletes become something more than just exceptionally talented. They disrupt our assumptions. They become the ‘but’ in how their sports are understood — NHL players don’t score 200 points in a season, but there’s Wayne Gretzky, doing it three seasons in a row; undersized point guards from Canada don’t win prestigious NBA hardware, but there’s Steve Nash, winning back-to-back MVP awards.
This point is where heroes are made.
Few humans ever reach it. And those who’ve been there, who know what it takes to ascend that high, know intimately who else has seen those heights. So when Gretzky, the NHL’s 200-point hero himself, points to Canadian tennis phenom Bianca Andreescu as an ideal hero for the country’s youth, the opinion is one worth listening to.
“My hat goes off to her, I don’t think we could have a better hero in our country for young kids,” Gretzky told Nash and Vasek Pospisil in this week’s episode of Tennis United, a new ATP and WTA-produced digital show. “I think it’s just truly remarkable. She deserves all the credit that she’s getting.”
Gretzky’s familiarity with Andreescu’s particular path to greatness started where many people’s did — at the Indian Wells Open. Each year, the Great One makes the trip to Palm Springs to take in the event.
In 2019, making that trip meant watching Andreescu defeat four top-20 players in the last four rounds — including No. 6 Elina Svitolina and No. 8 Angelique Kerber in the semifinals and final respectively, both in three sets — en route to becoming the first wild card women’s singles champion in tournament history and the first 18-year-old to win the event since Serena Williams in 1999.
“I got to see her play in her very first match in Palm Springs the year she won the U.S. Open,” Gretzky said. “We saw her first match. And I remember watching the match thinking, ‘My gosh, that’s one of the hardest working athletes I’ve ever seen in my life.’ And as the story goes, she went on to win the tournament — her first big win.”
Andreescu didn’t stop there, of course. She went on to claim the U.S. Open open title and although Nash wasn’t there to witness it in person, the way she went about doing it left an indelible impression.
“To be able to handle that at 19,” Nash mused. “To be standing there on the line against the greatest of all time, at 19, on basically [Williams’] home court, the fans want [Williams to win] more than anything. To be able to feel that momentum swing so far the other way, where you’re totally on top and now not only are you looking eye-to-eye with Serena, but you’ve lost all momentum.
“…For her to take a deep breath and go for winners, and not stop playing and still have that personality. That’s special.”
In that historic run and its afterglow, Andreescu captured the imagination of young Canadian tennis players across the country. Nineteen-year-olds don’t beat the greatest of all time on her home court, but there’s Andreescu, holding the U.S. Open trophy.
She became, like Nash, proof that someone from north of the border could not just compete with the world’s best, but beat them.
“People like Steve were pioneers in basketball, Mike Weir for golf in Canada,” Gretzky said. “Carling Bassett and now Bianca in women’s tennis in Canada. Those things are all so important for the growth of our country in sports. You gotta look up to people, and you gotta have heroes — because we all do, at one point in our lives, we were all kids dreaming.”
This week’s episode of the ATP & WTA-produced digital show Tennis United includes this interview as well as interviews with a great array of Canadian Tennis players, including Felix Auger-Aliassime and US Open champion Bianca Andreescu. Head over to the ATP and WTA YouTube pages to check out the full episode on Friday at 2pm EST.