On the Thursday before the Rogers Cup began last month in Toronto, this reporter was checking out a practice session on Centre Court at the Aviva Centre.
Bianca Andreescu had not played since May 28 at the French Open and it seemed logical not to expect her to be in top form, especially after so much time spent rehabbing her right shoulder and so little time hitting tennis balls.
Early on, she confirmed that notion, spraying her shots and appearing to be off her game. But as things moved along, she started to find her rhythm and soon the player at the opposite end of the court was acting petulant and tossing her racquet in frustration as Andreescu’s tennis improved.
The name of that player…Belinda Bencic.
At the time, there was a sense that Andreescu would at least be able to be competitive at the Rogers Cup but certainly no expectation that she could actually go all the way and win it.
On Thursday night, in a US Open semi-final that could possibly set up a blockbuster final against none other than the great Serena Williams, Andreescu will face Bencic in a match that could be considered the biggest of her professional career so far.
Andreescu, of course, defied expectations and went on to win the Rogers Cup in a final that was cut short after four games when Williams retired with back spasms. For her part, Bencic lost 6-2, 6-4 in the third round to no. 7 Elina Svitolina.
With Andreescu playing Bencic and Williams taking on Svitolina – these players make up the final four at this year’s US Open. On Thursday night, it’s Williams vs. Svitolina at 7 p.m. followed by Andreescu vs. Bencic for spots in Saturday’s 4 p.m. final on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Andreescu laboured for two hours and two minutes on Ashe Stadium on a humid Wednesday night for a hard-earned 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory over no. 26 Elise Mertens.
The 23-year-old Belgian survived two break points in the very first game of the match and gradually gained the upper hand, hitting deep and consistently from the baseline and serving at a high success rate – winning 75 per cent of first serve points and a remarkable 82 per cent of second serve points in the opening set.
Andreescu was not at her best and seemed rattled by Mertens’ aggressive play – especially the low-trajectory, penetrating, two-handed backhands that she was hitting with ease in any direction.
By the end of the first set, Mertens had more winners (12-11) than Andreescu and fewer unforced errors (9-14).
The match began to swing Andreescu’s way in the opening game of the second set when she saved two break points and eventually won it with a trademark combo – a serve and a well-dispatched forehand winner.
She broke to go up 2-0, but Mertens got back to 2-all before Andreescu gradually began to show her superior pedigree – hitting bigger and mixing in angles and drop shots as she took off on a five-game run to win set two and lead 1-0 in the third.
There were mentions of Andreescu being a little off – with ESPN commentator Chris Evert saying early in the second set that Andreescu seemed “very emotionally flat” and then courtside reporter Pam Shriver noting midway through the third set that a tired-looking Andreescu’s expression was “uncomfortable, almost pained.” Perspiring in the muggy confines of Ashe Stadium, she did look a little weary and occasionally took sips of water between points from bottles handed to her by ball boys.
But true to the form that has now seen her win 12 three-set matches in a row, she drew on her physicality and willpower to finally take control in a pivotal moment at the end of the final set – breaking to 5-3 and serving out the match on five points with the coup de grace coming from a crisp backhand winner.
“I’m just fighting really hard,” she said about her uncanny success in matches that go the distance. “It’s not over ‘till it’s over. I’ve had many situations where I’ve come back from 5-0 down and won the match, and even vice versa. I was up 5-0 and then my opponents came back and won the match. You never really know – so I just try to play every point like it’s the last.”
Immediately after she won, the 19-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., looked incredulously over at her support group. “I said, ‘is this real life?’ twice,” she later recounted. “I couldn’t really believe it at that moment. But then when I sat down, I just couldn’t stop smiling.”
Shortly after, she said to ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi in her on-court interview about being in the semi-finals, “this is honestly so crazy. A year ago I lost in the qualifying and I remember having a back injury. Now I’m speechless – I need someone to pinch me.”
After the poor start when the numbers were in Mertens’ favour, they changed drastically. Andreescu had 29 winners and 19 unforced errors in the final two sets compared to her Belgian opponent’s 10 winners and 18 unforced errors.
“I tried to stay more aggressive than the first set,” Andreescu explained about the turnaround. “I felt I was missing a lot in the first set. I saw that she was picking on my backhand a lot, so I tried to go more down-the-line with my backhand so she can go back to my forehand and I can use my forehand.” She added, smiling, “because I like my forehand.”
“She’s still young (with) no pressure,” Mertens, who ranked as high as no. 12 last November, said about Andreescu. “I think if you can serve well in the big moments, you can do well in the big moments. That’s maybe something she does very well.
“Also get that one more strike. She’s a very powerful hitter but also a good mover.”
That movement was most evident in the crucial late stages of the third set when Andreescu ran down several powerful Mertens shots and lofted replies high and deep to essentially re-start the point and frustrate the Belgian, who had every reason to believe she had already ended the point.
Andreescu’s deadly combination of offence and defence has now helped stretch her winning streak – not counting a retirement in the fourth round of the Miami Open in March – to 22 matches in a row. She will try to make it 23 against the no. 12 Bencic – although the 22-year-old Swiss is actually no. 8 in the ‘live’ WTA rankings followed by Andreescu at no. 9.
Bencic defeated no. 23 Donna Vekic 7-6(5), 6-3 Wednesday afternoon to bring her one round further than her previous best result at the US Open – a quarter-final in 2014.
Like Andreescu, who has had ankle, foot, adductor, back and shoulder injuries in recent years, Bencic has had her setbacks. She had left-wrist surgery in the spring of 2016 – missing five months – shortly after reaching her career-high ranking of no. 7. She also shares some history with Canadian Genie Bouchard – winning the 2013 Wimbledon junior singles title the year after Bouchard – and has a strong Canadian connection, having won Rogers Cup in Toronto in 2015, including wins over Williams and Simona Halep. An impressionable 15-year-old Andreescu was there to witness to Bencic’s success – the first of her two WTA Premier 5 titles (also Dubai in February of this year).
“I’ve practiced with her once actually in Toronto,” Andreescu recalled about Bencic. “I found that she takes the ball really early. She likes to be very aggressive. She has a very good serve. She moves pretty well too.
“So I’m going to do my best to just focus on myself mainly and just keep doing what I’m doing – because I think my game is throwing off a lot of players.”
With her win Wednesday, Andreescu, 19, becomes the second Canadian – 16-year-old Carling Bassett-Seguso did it in 1984 – to reach the US Open semi-finals. If she gets to the final, she will duplicate 20-year-old Bouchard’s feat at Wimbledon in 2014 and become one of only two Canadian women to play in a Grand Slam singles final.
Andreescu’s prodigious achievements and natural ability to play winning, ingenious tennis has earned her a growing fan base among her compatriots. On Wednesday, she received a Twitter message of encouragement from retired Canadian basketball great Steve Nash and later commented, “it’s really cool having other Canadian athletes shout me out like that. I think it gives me extra motivation to just keep striving and keep doing well.”
Talking about her family, Andreescu, an only child, called her mother “the coolest person I know – she’s my role model” and related about Maria Andreescu and father Nicu (top left, third row above), “I think they emigrated in 1995. Back then, Romania was having problems with (Communist dictator Nicolae) Ceausescu. They wanted to just have a better life, so they came into Canada. Canada was very welcoming with immigrants.
“I think they made the right decision because without Tennis Canada’s support, I don’t think I would have been here today.”
While names like Bassett-Seguso, Helen Kelesi and Bouchard on the women’s side, and Raonic, Pospisil, Nestor, Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov among the men, have led the way, an argument can be made that Andreescu has already surpassed them all with one year of absolutely incredible results – and there should be more to come.
DABROWSKI/XU OUT IN DOUBLES
Gabriela Dabrowski and partner Xu Yifan of China were beaten 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 on Wednesday by the unseeded pairing of Viktoria Kuzmova, 21, of Slovakia and Aliaksandra Sasnovich, 25, of Belarus.
In a closely-fought match that opened the day’s action in Louis Armstrong Stadium on Wednesday, the Slovak/Belorussian team were slightly more opportunistic – converting on 6/9 break points to 5/12 for Dabrowski/Xu.
The loss, in one hour and 51 minutes, was extra disappointing for the no. 3 seeded Dabrowski and Xu because it prevented a much-anticipated semi-final match-up against the high-profile eighth-seeded team of Ashleigh Barty and Victoria Azarenka.
Two Canadians advanced to the third round of the junior doubles events on Wednesday.
Mélodie Collard, 16, of Gatineau, Que., and her partner Wong Hong Yi Cody, 17, of Hong Kong upset second seeds Sada Nasimana of Burundi and Solyun Park of Korea by a 6-4, 6-2 score in the girls event.
In boys doubles, fifth-seeded Liam Draxl, 17, of Newmarket, Ont., and American partner Govind Nanda, 18, defeated Leandro Riedl and Dominic Stephan Stricker of Switzerland 6-4, 6-3.
In singles on Thursday, the 10th seeded Draxl will face 18-year-old Cannon Kingsley of the U.S. in a third-round match.
NEW YORK POST CARD
The Long Island Rail Road is the most pleasant method of public transport to get to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The line going to the US Open runs from Penn Station at 34th street and 7th avenue in Manhattan all the way to Port Washington up on the North shore of Long Island. The trip to the US Open from Manhattan takes 16 minutes while, going in the opposite direction from nearby Douglaston – childhood home of Mary Carillo and John and Patrick McEnroe – is about a 10-minute journey.
(Feature Photo: Mauricio Paiz)