2021 Australian Open brings the end of a 15-month wait for Bianca Andreescu

After the longest competitive absence of her career and a few false starts along the way, 2019 US Open winner Bianca Andreescu is finally set to make her return. Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports

AS NAOMI OSAKA stood in the middle of Arthur Ashe Stadium hoisting the trophy at the US Open in September, Bianca Andreescu watched from her parents' house outside of Toronto some 500 miles away.

She was happy for Osaka, but it stung. As the defending champion, having defeated Serena Williams in the 2019 final for the biggest accomplishment of her young career, she couldn't help but wish it had been her achieving tennis glory yet again.

She didn't let herself dwell on feelings of envy, though. Instead, she did what she frequently does -- pictured herself standing on the court soon and basking under the bright lights, remembering exactly what it felt like.

"I knew my day would come again," Andreescu said recently. "I knew it would come. Sooner or later, it would come and I would be back out there."

That positive attitude has proved invaluable through a challenging 15-month stretch full of obstacles, injuries and setbacks. And now the 20-year-old Andreescu enters the Australian Open -- her first Slam event as a major champion -- with a fresh perspective. Every moment of uncertainty, every minute spent quarantining or away from the tennis court has made her appreciate the opportunity that much more, she said, and she intends to relish every second of it. She finally got her chance to do just that with her first-round match on Monday, defeating Mihaela Buzarnescu 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.

"I'm not going to sit here and say [the past 11 months] were OK; it was a mess," Andreescu said on her last day of quarantine in Melbourne late last month. "Just looking back at everything makes me so much more grateful to be doing what I'm doing right now ...

"After all of this, I'm not taking anything for granted."

ANDREESCU'S 2019 SEASON can be described only as meteoric. She entered that season ranked No. 178 with just one major main-draw appearance on her résumé, but stormed through qualifying at the first event of the year in Auckland and made it all the way to the final.

By the end of the year, Andreescu was the US Open champion, as well as the victor at Indian Wells and the Canadian Open. Her ranking jumped as high as No. 4.

With her title in New York, she became the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title and received a hero's welcome in her home country: a #SheTheNorth victory rally in her hometown of Mississauga, Ontario, attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. She also received the Lou Marsh Trophy for Canada's top athlete, as well as the WTA's Newcomer of the Year.

Andreescu embraced the spotlight, always ready with a perfect quote or sound bite during one of her many television appearances or news conferences. She was frequently spotted courtside at Toronto Raptors NBA games, reveling in her celebrity status.

She was poised to be tennis' next big thing, but she injured her knee at the year-end WTA Finals, forcing her to withdraw after two matches. She wasn't ready to make the trip to Australia and New Zealand to start the 2020 season.

She wouldn't play a match for another year.

Andreescu was slated to make her return at the BNP Paribas Open in March and was already in Indian Wells, California, when the tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The season was suspended soon after. She went home to Mississauga and waited to hear what was next.

While she had experienced lengthy breaks before, including missing several months during the 2019 season with a right shoulder injury, she had never been through such a long layoff. Andreescu struggled at times during the early days of the pandemic.

"I think I kept a positive outlook on everything, but obviously I had bad days where I would just sit in my bed and just cry because I couldn't do anything," she said. "I couldn't train, I couldn't see my friends. I couldn't do anything that I normally do. It was new territory for everyone, but we all had to deal with it. And so I just tried to focus on the things I could control."

Andreescu spent time with her parents and their dog Coco, took online classes covering topics from nutrition to mental health, and started to make beats on SoundCloud. She has developed a passion for music that she hopes to do more with in the future. (Just don't ask her to sing, she insisted.)

Having become a poster child for the power of visualization techniques after sharing her methods during her US Open run, Andreescu continued to utilize that strategy -- taking solace in being able to play matches in her head when she wasn't able to in real life. "I picture myself playing and I can feel myself exactly in that moment," she explained. Having first started the practice as a 12-year-old, she can see -- and feel -- every serve, every return, every point, and believes it's as valuable as actually playing.

Her longtime coach, Sylvain Bruneau, emphasized Andreescu's fitness during their workouts in hopes of making her less susceptible to injury.

"We've been making sure she's coming back and fitter than she's ever been, and hopefully that's going to make a big difference," Bruneau said in December while the two were training together in Dubai. "I think the fact that she did so well so quickly [in 2019], and playing so many matches at such a high intensity, I think it caught up to her. I'm not sure that physically she was ready for it. It's live and learn and you try to learn from what happened and we'll try to make sure it doesn't happen again."

WHEN THE SEASON resumed in August, Andreescu opted to skip the remaining events, including the US Open and the French Open, citing risks related to the virus. She was able to resume on-court training after about two months following the loosening of provincial restrictions. However, she didn't play for points until her preseason in Dubai.

"The first time I played, I started getting chills because I realized, 'Wow, I haven't done this in over a year,'" she said. "It was such a relief and I was so happy. I lost the set, but I honestly didn't care. It was just amazing to be on court after so long."

Encouraged by her resurgent preseason, Andreescu was counting the days until she could leave for Melbourne for the 2021 Australian Open. But even that didn't work out as she had hoped. Following their charter flight to Australia, Bruneau tested positive for COVID-19 and everyone on the plane had to hard quarantine for 14 days. Andreescu's Slam preparation was confined almost entirely to her hotel room until she was cleared to leave on Jan. 29.

She relied on her experience as an only child to keep herself entertained in isolation -- she meditated, read and played video games on her Xbox -- and utilized what she had learned during the early days of the pandemic to stay prepared. She visualized playing for about 90 minutes every day and participated in Zoom training with her team. Still, she was fully packed to leave the mandated hotel and go to one of her choosing a full day before she could actually leave.

Due to the number of players forced into the hard quarantine protocol, Tennis Australia and the WTA created the Grampians Trophy, a third lead-in tournament exclusively for the isolated female players. Andreescu was slated to be the event's top seed, but she withdrew before play got underway on Feb. 3 to give herself more time to prepare for the Australian Open. She had said last month her status in the event would be a "last-minute decision" and she needed to see how she was feeling on court after not being able to play for more than two weeks.

So now, after the longest competitive absence of her career and a few false starts along the way, Andreescu has finally made her return. Currently No. 8 in the world, thanks in large part to the temporary restructuring of the ranking system due to the pandemic, she hasn't lost much ground and she's excited to play as many events as possible after Melbourne.

If history is any indication, the extended break could suit her. After having to withdraw from the 2019 French Open with the shoulder injury, Andreescu made her return in Toronto for the Canadian Open. She of course won that tournament and her next event -- the US Open.

"She's been in situations before where she was away from the court for long periods of time and then come back and done really well, and this is obviously for a longer amount of time but she was able to manage that before," Bruneau said. "She's the kind of player who will always rise to the occasion."

While Andreescu still wants to reach No. 1 and win multiple Slam titles, she said she's not thinking too much about specific results entering this tournament.

"I don't have any expectations," she said. "I'm just going to go out there and just be happy that I'm back on court healthy and do my best. I think it's going to be a bit of a roller coaster of emotions that first match back, but it will be a lot of relief. I haven't been this excited since I don't even know when."