Bianca Andreescu has shown an uncanny ability to play well even when returning to the tour after significant time off.
She’s probably the exception and not the rule – but there’s also the fact that she’s one of the sport’s most supremely talented players, something that makes her quick-draw success easier to understand.
It was noticeable last week in Beijing that the 2019 US Open champion now possesses the aura of a great player. That was clear in her second-round match against 2018 Australian Open semi-finalist Elise Mertens. At crunch-time late in the second set of the Andreescu’s 6-3, 7-6(5) win, the No. 23-ranked Belgian clearly lost a bit of belief knowing she was up against a superior player. It’s something that Serena Williams has had going for her for years and it’s now starting to happen for Andreescu after her huge wins in Indian Wells, at Rogers Cup in Toronto and at the US Open.
Despite her phenomenal success, a few internet trolls were questioning the fact that Andreescu was unable to capitalize on 3-1 leads in the second and third sets of her 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 loss to Naomi Osaka in the Beijing quarter-finals. There was even criticism of her not being able to hold on to a 5-1 lead in the opening set before eventually winning it.
While Bianca backers were disappointed she let the lead slip – Osaka saw it differently, saying afterward about her nervous start to the match, “she (Andreescu) was probably thinking, like, ‘wow, what is she doing?’ I’m just, like, hitting so many unforced errors. She’s like, ‘wow, she won two Grand Slams like that?’”
But when it was all over the 21-year-old Japanese was obviously relieved that she had pulled through an excruciatingly close encounter against a fearsome opponent. Asked about a potential future rivalry with Andreescu, Osaka joked, “listen, I don’t want to play her any more. I’m good – one-and-done.”
If tennis was a sport such as figure skating or gymnastics where judges determine the outcome, this observer would have given Andreescu a very slight edge in points over Osaka. She controlled more of the back-court rallies and showed a superior ability to finish them either off the return, the short ball or at the net. But Osaka’s serve was more potent – chalking up 10 aces to one for her opponent.
Andreescu gave her own candid appraisal of the match, saying, “we both played really, really well. If you really want to look at things in a match that you think you can do better, you’ll always find something. Not every match is perfect.
“Maybe I could have made less unforced errors. Maybe my serve could have been a little bit better. But I think I was returning well. Points were really long. Naomi played really, really well.
“It was a tough battle.”
The result of the intriguing match-up of the past two US Open champions may actually help Andreescu. It means she will not be carrying an 18 (or greater) match winning streak going into the WTA Finals beginning in Shenzhen, China, on October 27. That should take off some of the pressure – and also give her more incentive to avenge the loss to Osaka.
It reminds this tennis writer of 2011 when Novak Djokokic took a five-month, 41-match winning streak into a semi-final against Roger Federer at the French Open, an event he was really pumped to win. Federer played well but Djokovic seemed to feel the weight of his remarkable run and was below his best. However he then quickly rebounded and didn’t lose another completed match the rest of that year until after the US Open – overall going 4-1 vs. Federer and 6-0 vs. Nadal.
There will be plenty of incentive for Andreescu in Shenzhen, with this year’s prize money doubling to $14 million (US) and $4.75 million on offer for an undefeated champion. Her current No. 5 place in the Race To Shenzhen could improve with a good result in three weeks. Finishing No. 1 for 2019 is impossible because the maximum number of points on offer at the grand finale is 1,500. The leader, Ashleigh Barty, is ahead of Andreescu 6,476 to 4,942 (1,534 points) but No. 2 is definitely within reach. Andreescu trails second place Karolina Pliskova by 373 points (5,315 to 4,942) with 1,080 also available for the runner-up and 750 for the semi-finalists in the eight-woman field.
“I think I’m playing really well,” Andreescu said after the loss to Osaka, “maybe even better than at the US Open. I’m feeling my shots way better actually. So hopefully it can just get even better from here so I can do well in Shenzhen.”
It’s been an extraordinary season for Andreescu – from a No. 152 ranking at the end of 2018 to her present No. 5 – as well as to being a Grand Slam tournament champion.
And all this is happening when she’s just 19 years old. Since the year 2000, only two players have won Grand Slam titles as teenagers – Maria Sharapova at 17 at Wimbledon in 2004 and at 19 at the 2006 US Open, and Andreescu at 19 at the 2019 US Open.
That’s scary good, and is likely just a signpost on her way to bigger and better things.
HITTING THE BALL IN SHANGHAI
Denis Shapovalov set up a second-round match with world No. 1 and top seed Novak at the Shanghai Masters by beating Frances Tiafoe 6-4, 6-2 on Monday.
He has played the ruling triumvirate of men’s tennis – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – a total of five times and is 0-4 since his surprise 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(4) upset of Nadal in 2017 at Rogers Cup in Montreal.
His most recent match-up was against Federer in the Miami Open semi-finals in March – a 6-2, 6-4 loss. It looked then as if he was just a little too much in awe of the great Swiss.
Djokovic has beaten Shapovalov twice – 2019 Australian Open (6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0) and 2019 Rome (6-1, 6-3) but this could be a good situation for him. Djokovic won the Tokyo title on Sunday and is playing his first match in Shanghai on Wednesday (6:30 p.m. – 6:30 a.m. ET Canada). Everyone knows what an explosive game Shapovalov has, and he has been playing much better lately. So is an upset possible? Who knows? But he’s got too much game not to beat one of the Big Three sooner rather than later.
Félix Auger-Aliassime also made it to the second round, defeating qualifier Alexander Bublik 7-6(5), 4-0 ret. on Tuesday. He was very erratic in the first set – losing serve at 5-4 while serving three double faults – but took control in the second set.
The win sets up a fascinating second round against old junior rival Stefanos Tsitsipas (12:30 p.m. Wednesday – 12:30 a.m. ET Canada). Auger-Aliassime has usually had the 21-year-old Greek’s number and has beaten him twice already in 2019 – 6-4, 6-2 in Indian Wells and 7-5, 6-2 at Queen’s Club on grass. On the latter occasion, a sullen Tsitsipas famously said about Auger-Aliassime, “he’s the most difficult opponent I’ve ever faced, and I think it’s going to take a couple of tries to beat him. I have to accept that he’s better than me.”
The other Canadian in Shanghai, gave his lowly ranking – No. 248 – a boost by defeating No. 63 Joao Sousa 6-3, 7-5 and will now face No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev in Thursday’s round-of-16. Pospisil, still coming back from an eight months absence after January back surgery, now has his ranking up to about No. 188.
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(Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz)