True grit

Professional tennis players are the toughest athletes in sports. Period.

Hold on, sports fans with your knickers in a twist that football or hockey players or boxers are tougher.

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They just aren't. Here's why.

In the major men's professional leagues (hockey, baseball, football, basketball), the athletes are on a team with fellow athletes. As per their contracts, they are paid regardless of their performance for the duration of that contract. Not only do they have teammates to rely upon, they get to return to the sidelines continuously throughout the games to receive encouragement, feedback and direction from coaches.

In tennis, as well as boxing, golf, auto racing and ultimate fighting, athletes are paid to compete and paid more the better they perform. As they win, they move on to bigger stages and bigger purses.

Yet during boxing and ultimate fighting matches, athletes compete in rounds, after which they retreat to their corners for short rests and instructions from coaches. Race car drivers can hear their coaches in their headsets. Golfers don't have access to coaches during tournament play but they do have their caddie to discuss tactics with before taking their shot.

Only in singles tennis is the athlete competing alone. Coaches can watch nearby but are forbidden to communicate directly with their player and vice versa. Overt signals are also against the rules. In a match that can last for hours - the U.S. Open men's final lasted an incredible four hours and 51 minutes - each player faces their opponent without direct support. Along with the physical strength and endurance required, the mental focus and emotional resilience required makes professional tennis players the epitome of athletic toughness.

And then there's Bianca.

If there was a formula to create what Bianca Andreescu did during her historic run to win the U.S. Open women's final and become the first Canadian to ever win a Grand Slam tournament, it would already have been created.

And don't ask her - or Serena Williams, her opponent in the final and the greatest women's tennis player ever - or elite athletes in any other sport to explain what separates them from the competition. They don't know, either.

Andreescu's performance Saturday afternoon was special but what she did Thursday night, during the semi-final against Belinda Bencic was even better. She beat Bencic 7-6 (3), 7-5 but you wouldn't have known it until the players shook hands at the net after match point.

Andreescu looked mentally and physically exhausted, frequently scolded herself for poor play and threw her racket down in frustration numerous times. Early in the second set, the commentators noted that for someone who won the first set, Andreescu looked miserable.

Not only did she go on to win the match, she humiliated Bencic in the process.

Ahead 5-2 in the second set, Bencic had two service games to finish off Andreescu. She lost both and went on to lose five straight games to hand Andreescu the victory. Bencic's frustration was evident in her face and body language as the match slipped away.

She had so many opportunities to finish off Andreescu but could not put her away because she simply refused to quit.

To find a way to win, even when you're not playing your best, even when your opponent is pushing you around, even when you're tired and uninspired, takes a special kind of grit, particularly for a tennis player who can't get a pep talk from a coach. When the cameras cut to Andreescu's coach, Sylvain Bruneau, he was the picture of a poker face. Except for the slightest of nods after a big point, Bruneau's face was a statue and he never moved.

On Saturday, it was Williams who stormed back in the second set, after having lost the first set and surrendered a huge 5-1 lead in the second to an opponent 18 years younger. When Williams tied the match 5-5, the fiercely partisan crowd of more than 25,000 roared in approval.

Under that kind of pressure against a competitor who had seized all of the momentum, most athletes would have crumbled, much like Bencic had two days earlier.

Instead, Andreescu snapped the impetus Williams had built up.

Andreescu won her service game and then breaking Williams on her service to silence the crowd and win the U.S. Open. She did it on her own, against a far more experienced player and a huge audience that, except for a handful of Canadians, wanted her to lose and said so.

And just like that, the Toronto Raptors took a backseat as the Canadian sports story of the year to a 19-year-old woman from Mississauga, whose combination of skill and fortitude made her an overnight household name in this country.

Best of all, her story might be only beginning.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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