|||||||||Photo : Mauricio Paiz|Photo: Mauricio Paiz|
It seemed like just another wild prediction when Tennis Canada’s vice-president of elite athlete development Louis Borfiga declared about Bianca Andreescu – after a Fed Cup tie in February, 2017, in Montreal – “she’s going to win a Grand Slam.”
The then 16-year-old had lost 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 to no. 31 ranked Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan but defeated no. 51 Yaroslava Shvedova 7-6(1), 6-4, prompting the usually circumspect Borfiga to make his bold pronouncement.
In the meantime, there have been times – Andreescu ended 2017 ranked no. 182 and 2018 at no. 178 – when it seemed the Frenchman, who came to Montreal in July 2006, to head up Tennis Canada’s National Tennis Centre development program in Montreal, may have just gotten carried away in the emotion of the moment.
But on Saturday, he became one of the great savants in Canadian tennis history when Andreescu defeated Serena Williams 6-3, 7-5 to become the 2019 US Open champion.
“She’s the player of tomorrow,” Borfiga was beginning to tell a small group of French-speaking journalists near the players entrance after Saturday’s final when Andreescu’s coach, Sylvain Bruneau, excused himself and interrupted, “I just want to say that this is all the result of Louis’ vision. He wouldn’t say it himself, he’s too humble. But it’s incredible what he has accomplished. Even him putting me and Bianca together when I was Fed Cup captain. At first I was saying ‘no’ but he said that’s what I want and that’s how it’s going to be. Honestly, he’s great.”
“As I was saying,” Borfiga continued, “I think Bianca’s the player of the future. I think today we saw a passing of the torch. What’s going to happen in tennis is about Bianca – in other words, a player with variety in her game but also capable of hitting the ball with extreme power. That’s how we have to train the young kids today.”
In front of a pro-Williams, capacity crowd in the 23,771-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, Andreescu broke serve in the opening game when a shaky Williams double-faulted twice in a row – the second time with an 83 mph serve into the net.
From then on, Andreescu was ascendant, hitting with the same free-flowing ground game that has been her calling card during her sensational winning streak over the past six months – 24-0 in completed matches since March.
She broke Williams, who looked flat-footed and had 14 unforced errors compared to six for Andreescu in the opening set, again in the final game to wrap it up in 42 minutes.
It looked like it was going to be a another one-sided, Grand Slam final for Williams – as it was at Wimbledon in July when she won only four games (6-2, 6-2) against Simona Halep – when Andreescu took a 5-1 lead in the second set following three breaks of the mighty Williams serve. But the 37-year-old American rallied, saving a championship point trailing 5-1 with a go-for-broke forehand inside/in service return winner. Andreescu, for the first time, looked vulnerable and Williams climbed all the way back to even terms at 5-all.
But Andreescu then held serve to 30 to make it 6-5 and wrapped up the one-hour and 40-minute match with a forehand service return winner on her third championship point.
Her immediate reaction was to drop her racquet and look over at her support group in disbelief before going to the net for a cordial handshake with Williams. She then again looked at Bruneau, her parents Maria and Nicu and the rest of her entourage, making a ‘heart’ with her fingers before eventually going over and climbing up a pre-placed step-ladder into the courtside box to embrace and celebrate with her team.
Andreescu has been refreshingly candid throughout her spectacular rise which has now earned her three major titles – Indian Wells, Rogers Cup and the US Open – in 2019. From telling Williams she was a “f—ing beast,” when she consoled her after she retired 19 minutes into their final at the Rogers Cup in Toronto last month, to her explanation of what she was thinking on Saturday before going out for the final game of the match leading 6-5 with Williams to serve.
“I told myself to put the goddamn ball inside the court and just breathe as much as I could because she was serving,” she said. “I wanted to win the first point to show her that I am in it to win it. Did I win that first point? (Yes she did.) I don’t even know.”
The official stats were misleading – Williams had 33 winners and 33 unforced errors while Andreescu had 19 winners and 17 unforced errors. But there were numbers that were more telling – Williams only made 44 per cent of her first serves (34 of 77) and lost six of her 11 service games.
Basically, Andreescu played her style of aggressive, fearless and confident tennis – again being particularly adept at winning the so-called big (pressure) points. Meanwhile, Williams was mostly out-of-sorts – destabilized by Andreescu’s aggression, especially her service returns.
Williams later gave Andreescu her due, saying, “I felt like Bianca plays well under pressure. She goes out and she plays hard. She does what she does best, and that’s move up to the ball, that’s hit winners, that’s play with a ton of intensity.”
But Williams was also self-critical, bemoaning her inept serving and declaring, “this was the worst match I’ve played all tournament.”
Runner-up to Naomi Osaka in last year’s final, Williams’ ranking will drop from no. 8 to no. 9 while Andresscu moves up from no. 15 to no. 5 – equalling Genie Bouchard for the highest ever ranking by a Canadian woman.
It is now four losses in a Grand Slam final in a row for Williams who won 21 of her first 25 Grand Slam finals but has since gone just two for eight. She lost – without winning a set – to Angelique Kerber in the 2018 Wimbledon final, to Osaka at the 2018 US Open, to Halep in 2019 at Wimbledon and now to Andreescu this year in Flushing Meadows.
“I mean, Kerber doesn’t count because like I was exhausted,” Williams said about Wimbledon in 2018. “My baby was eight months, and that’s tough. But all of it honestly, truly is super frustrating. I’m like so close, so close, so close, yet so far away. I don’t know what to say. I guess I got to keep going if I want to be a professional tennis player.”
There’s an 18-year gap – actually 19 as of September 26 when Williams turns 38 – between her and Andreescu. The 19-year-old Canadian has a vigour and insouciance about her that is, in the modern parlance, decidedly Next Gen. “I’ve really strived to be like her,” Andreescu said about the 23-time Grand Slam champion. “Who knows? Maybe I can be even better.”
Williams won her first US Open at the age of nineteen 20 years ago in 1999, so maybe anything is possible.
There was a nice moment after Andreescu’s media conference when Stacey Allaster, the former Rogers Cup tournament director who is now head of professional tennis at the United States Tennis Association, presented a US Open trophy replica to coach Bruneau.
Talking about his player and how she raised her game at 5-all in the second set, Bruneau said, “she was able to regain total control of her thinking to get back into the match, control her execution and stay in the moment. She hit out and played her offensive tennis. She couldn’t let Serena take control. Bianca has something special that means that in moments like that – for others they could be difficult times – she’s able to rise to the occasion, impose herself and do great things.”
Bruneau has said in the past that last December, when she was training in Florida with WTA players such Heather Watson and Madison Brengle, Andreescu was beating everybody. On Saturday he talked about her good start to the year, which included reaching the final of the WTA International event in Auckland in January with wins over Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams, and said that he thought her victory at the $125K WTA event (the second week of the Australian Open) in Newport Beach, California, was a key to the success that culminated with her big breakthrough win at Indian Wells. He claimed she might not have had her ensuing success without the win in Newport Beach, which saw her defeat Bouchard (6-2, 6-0) in the quarter-finals and Jessica Pegula (0-6, 6-4, 6-2) in the final.
Hesitant to speculate about Andreescu’s future, Bruneau said, “at the moment I’m very pleased. I’d rather avoid making predictions. What I can say is that we’ll continue to do things properly day by day. But it’s obvious that we can dream a bit. She’s only 19 years old and we’ve already seen what she’s capable of doing.”
At times – when Williams was introduced during the walk-on and when she mounted a comeback in the second set – the crowd was eardrum-jarring loud, high-decibel waves of sound cascading down from the upper reaches. “I could hardly hear myself think,” Andreescu said. “It was really loud. But I just tried to stay as composed as I could. It’s hard to block everything out but I think I did a pretty good job at that.”
Andreescu teared up once during her post-match media conference when talking how her preparation and visualizing in the lead-up to playing Williams. “This wasn’t the only time I visualized playing against Serena Williams,” she said. “It’s so crazy man, I’ve been…” Overcome, she paused and briefly put her head down.
Everything has happened remarkably fast for Andreescu – highlighted by becoming Canada’s first Grand Slam singles champion. Ironically it happened 20 years after, at the same event, Montreal’s Sébastien Lareau, with American doubles partner Alex O’Brien, was the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam main event title of any kind.
Andreescu is up to no. 4 in the Race to Shenzhen – the eight-player grand finale for the WTA year which takes place in China from October 28 to November 3 that offers $14 million US in total prize money, including a potential $4.75 million US payoff for an undefeated singles champion.
Andreescu, who earned $3.85 million US for Saturday’s triumph at the US Open, has become an instant superstar in Canada and around the world. “I never really thought about being famous,” she said. “My goals have been to win as many Grand Slams as possible, become No. 1 in the world. The idea of fame never crossed my mind.” Smiling, she added, “it’s been a crazy ride this year. I can definitely get used to this feeling.”
She also spoke eloquently about her homeland being a welcoming nation, saying about being the daughter of Romanian immigrants, “Canada is such an amazing country. It’s so multi-cultural. I had no trouble growing up having Romanian parents whatsoever. That’s why I love my country so, so much.”
Andreescu’s next scheduled event is Osaka, Japan, beginning September 16, but the result at the US Open could alter those plans.
About the hashtag ‘She The North,’ the brainchild of New York Times writer Christopher Clarey, that has become an internet phenomenon, Andreescu smiled, “I don’t know what to say about that…it’s just awesome.”
Her parents, mother Maria and father Nicu are now minor celebrities through a run that has their daughter with a win/loss loss record of 45-5 in 2019.
“My mom has been telling me ‘remember who you are’ before every single match,” Andreescu said. “I think that says a lot by itself – because if you believe in yourself then you can do incredible things.”
An almost as well-known a family member is three-year-old poodle Coco. Asked if Coco would be getting a special meal and maybe even some champagne to celebrate her US Open title, Andreescu said, “she’s getting her own Coco Chanel collar!” Laughing out loud, she added, “hell yeah – ha-ha-ha – she deserves it!”
DOUBLE DOUBLES DISAPPOINTMENT
The two Canadians remaining in the junior US Open in doubles had tough semi-final losses on Friday.
In the girls event, Mélodie Collard, 16, of Gatineau, Que., and partner Wong Hong Yi Cody, 17, of Hong Kong were on the losing end – 7-5, 4-6, [12-10] – against the French pairing of Aubane Droguet and Selena Janicijevic. Collard and Wong were beaten after failing to convert on two match points. If break points are any indication, Droguet and Janicijevic were just slightly better – converting 6/9 while Collard and Wong were 6/11.
The fifth seeds in the boys event, Liam Draxl, 17, of Newmarket, Ont., and American partner Govind Nanda, 18, also lost in a match tiebreak – eliminated 6-7(4), 6-3, [10-7] by the American duo of Eliot Spizzirri and Tyler Zink.
The match lasted 67 minutes and the total points at the end was dead even at 70-70.
BRAVO: CANADA’S 2019 US OPEN CHAMPION