Let’s face it, when the chips are down, we all know Bianca Andreescu isn’t going to miss. Whether that’s entirely true or not, it’s what most Canadians have come to believe about the precocious 19-year-old at this year’s US Open.
Perhaps more than just her compatriots’ faith in her abilities, that same thought is playing in the heads of her opponents and has helped her to what is now a total of 23 consecutive victories – exception made for her retiring from a fourth-round match at the Miami Open in March.
In the past three rounds at the US Open, against Taylor Townsend, Elise Mertens and Thursday night in a 7-6(3), 7-5 semi-final victory over Belinda Bencic, Andreescu’s ironclad will and ability to lock-in at crucial moments in matches is something that opponents must be feeling from the other side of the net.
Following her win over the no. 12 ranked Bencic in Arthur Ashe Stadium, a single question remains – will the grand dame of modern tennis, Serena Williams, also fall under the Andreescu spell in the championship match on Saturday afternoon?
And before Andreescu’s legion of fans get too carried away, there’s also the possibility of a reverse spell with the Canadian teenager feeling the force of nature that Williams has become since her maiden Grand Slam victory 20 years ago at the 1999 US Open as a 17-year-old.
It makes for an intriguing match-up, as Williams goes for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title while Andreescu seeks to fulfill a flight of fancy that would take her to the US Open title after losing in the first round of qualifying in 2018. Then the WTA’s no. 208 ranked player, she was beaten by no. 108 Olga Danilovic, daughter of prominent Serbian basketball player Predrag Danilovic.
Andreescu received a grand total of two ranking points for losing in the qualifying to Danilovic, who’s 18-years-old and now ranked no. 218. The Canadian can earn 1,000 times more points – 2,000 – if she beats Williams in Saturday’s final. That match has a scheduled start time of 4 p.m. ET.
Asked to compare herself now with the player who lost in last year’s qualifying, Andreescu said, “I’m just stronger overall, even in my game. I’ve been through a lot with injuries. I think that also helped me learn a lot. I’ve surrounded myself with an amazing team. I’m traveling with a physio now, which I think is really helping me physically because I haven’t been having any pain whatsoever throughout this whole tournament.”
She went on to add, “I wasn’t going through a good period in my life at that point. I was having problems with some relationships in my life, with my body, and even my mind, too. I remember I was playing 25Ks, 60Ks in Canada before the qualies of the US Open.
“But I’m glad I went through it because at one point you have to. I think I just learned a lot.”
The long and the short of Andreescu’s victory over Bencic on Friday night came down to mental toughness. The 22-year-old Swiss had six break points compared to zero for Andreescu in the first set but converted on none of them – usually because Andreescu came up big. And nothing was bigger than the outright forehand winner she belted down-the-line on the sixth break point, which was also a set point at 5-4 for Bencic.
Andreescu did not blink when looking into the precipice of losing the first set, but Bencic did when she hit her first double fault of the match on the opening point of the ensuing tiebreak. That gave Andreescu the mini-break and a jump-start on her way to racing to a 5-0 lead and eventually closing it out 7-3.
There was another point when Bencic noticeably blinked. In control, leading 4-1 with a double service break in the second set, the Swiss played a horrendous game. It started with a backhand unforced error and was followed by consecutive double faults. The game ended two points later when Andreescu curled one of her patented acute-angled forehands cross-court for a winner.
Bencic managed to break again to extend her lead to 5-2, but Andreescu, who was on the ropes, was given a small opening to come back in the set and took full advantage. Gradually losing belief, Bencic capped-off her downward spiral with a double-fault to lose her serve in the tenth game to bring the match to 5-all. She threw her arms up in the air in frustration, mocking the crowd for applauding.
Two games later, on her third match point, Andreescu drove a service return deep and Bencic misfired a forehand into the net.
“In the second set I felt her kind of get tight at 4-1,” Andreescu said. “I fed off of that. I just kept going for my shots.”
Thinking back to where she was 12 months ago, Andreescu said during her post-match, on-court interview, “to be in the qualifying last year and now to be in the final, it’s just surreal, I don’t know what to say. It’s a dream come true to play Serena (Williams) in the US Open final.”
Minutes after the last point of the two-hour and 13-minute match, Andreescu’s coach Sylvain Bruneau (above right in red cap) was hyped up emotionally as he spoke about his player. “It’s exceptional, unbelievable,” he said about what she had done. “To see Bianca with her back to the wall in the second set – and the way she raised her game when she was in trouble. To go after her shots and make them the way she did – it’s remarkable.”
The numbers backed up the sense of how well, and fearlessly, she performed. Despite some shaky play in the first set, she wound up with 40 winners and 38 unforced errors compared to 16 winners and 32 unforced errors for Bencic. And she continued to excel at the net – winning nine of 13 points (69 per cent). After the match, Bencic graciously conceded about Andreescu, “I think she’s definitely a great player. She totally deserves to be in the final.”
Looking ahead to the final, Andreescu said she learned something about Williams hits the ball during the four-game aborted final (due to Williams’ back spasms) in Toronto at the Rogers Cup four weeks ago. “I’ve wanted to play her,” she said. “I remember always telling my team I would have always wanted to play her right before she retires.
“I’m really looking forward to it. She’s an amazing champion on and off the court. It’s going to be fun.”
Andreescu is well aware that the crowd in the 23,771-capacity Arthur Ashe Stadium will be highly-partisan for Williams. It was a good sign on Thursday night that she was more focused than Bencic and did not get distracted by constant crowd noise and movement in the arena. “I don’t know how that’s going to go,” she said about the atmosphere for Saturday’s showdown, “but hopefully I can have some Canadians cheering me on. I remember I heard some during the Taylor (Townsend) match. For sure, the crowd’s going to be for Serena. I just have to deal with that.”
Daniela Hantuchova, who’s now doing tennis commentary for Amazon Prime in the U.K., reached a career-high ranking of no. 5 in 2002 and won the Indian Wells title twice (2002 and 2007). Asked about Andreescu, the 36-year-old Slovak said, “she’s amazing. To me it’s all the mental work that she does – meditation, visualization. I think that’s why she’s able to transfer everything this quickly because it’s like she’s been in those situations in her head many times before.
“She’s very unique – she’s got quite a few things different from other players. Obviously she’s not afraid of power so I think Serena is not happy to be facing her in the final. I’m sure she was hoping more for Belinda. She (Andreescu) is just very special and that makes it so awkward for the opponent because I think they’re not used to seeing what’s coming from her side of the court.”
On Saturday, the 37-year-old Williams is going for her seventh US Open championship while Andreescu attempts to be the first Canadian woman or man to win one of tennis’ le plus ultra Grand Slam singles titles. She has already joined Chris Evert, Pam Shriver and Venus Williams as the only players to make the US Open final in her first main-draw appearance.
Andreescu recalls, when she won the Orange Bowl junior tournament in Florida at 16, that she wrote a cheque to herself for winning the US Open. “Ever since that moment, I just kept visualizing that,” she said. “If that can happen on Saturday, then that would be pretty cool.”
She still has that scribbled cheque and will find out Saturday if she has won the actual, updated championship version of it – which now totals a mammoth $3,850,000 US.
Liam Draxl, 17, of Newmarket, Ont., the last Canadian remaining in either junior singles event, was beaten Thursday 7-6(7), 7-6(6) in the third round by Cannon Kingsley, an 18-year-old Californian.
The stats for the match were very even, with both players winning 10 service games and losing two. The hour and 52-minute match saw Kingsley convert two of nine break points while the 10th seeded Draxl was two for 13.
Later in the day, Draxl returned to the courts with American partner Govind Nanda, 18, and they advanced to the doubles semi-finals with a 2-6, 6-3, [10-7] victory over Brandon Nakashima of the U.S. and Valentin Royer of France.
Next up for the fifth-seeded pair of Draxl and Nanda will be the all-American pairing of Eliot Spizzirri and Tyler Zink.
In girls doubles, Mélodie Collard, 16, of Gatineau, Que., partnered with Wong Hong Yi Cody, 17, of Hong Kong for a 6-4, 6-4 win over sixth seeded Americans Savannah Broadus and Abigail Forbes.
In the semi-finals, Collard and Wong will play the French duo of Aubane Droguet and Selena Janicijevic..
This is the east gate, located just along Louis Armstrong Stadium, for entering and exiting the US Open. The lines there can get pretty long as can been seen in the background of the picture here.
(Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz)