It was a US Open match that had it all – breath-taking rallies, unpredictable plot-twists, a raucous crowd and high drama related to an injury – and an ending at 2:13 a.m. Tuesday with the on-court match clock reading three hours and 30 minutes.
As with any mighty struggle in an individual sport, there was an exhilarated winner and a heart-broken loser. And the latter early Tuesday morning in Arthur Ashe Stadium was Bianca Andreescu, beaten 6-7(2), 7-6(6), 6-3 by Maria Sakkari.
The two had played a memorable two-hour and 42-minute match in Miami in April but this one surpassed it for incredible theatrics heightened by the gravitas of a Grand Slam tournament. And one where Andreescu was the defending champion of sorts – having won the title in 2019 but not being able to defend last year.
The players split the first two sets and had embarked on a third with Andreescu leading 3-2 when she took a medical time-out and left the court for treatment, returning six minutes later with her left upper leg wrapped.
In her first game back she stopped running for a few Sakkari shots and by the second she was crumbling over after rallies in obvious pain as the leg seemed to give way. There were also agonized Andreescu screams and squeals as Sakkari won the next two games to take a 4-3 lead. With Sakkari then serving, Andreescu, who was still striking the ball reasonably well, had a break point to level at 4-all but missed a backhand into the net. That effectively ended her hopes because she was in increasing distress while the serene Sakkari showed no more signs of fatigue than if she were playing the second game of the match.
In the ninth game with Sakkari ahead 5-3, she held match point three times but Andreescu saved the first with a forehand volley winner and the second and third on Sakkari unforced errors. Andreescu was still able to stay in most rallies and hit solid shots such as an outrageously angled backhand cross-court passing shot winner in the previous game. But on the fourth match point, she missed a semi-leaping overhead into the net, unable to plant and follow through as she normally would with a healthy limb under her.
In hindsight, Andreescu had her golden opportunity to win the match in the second-set tiebreak when she saved three set points trailing 3-6 – a nervous Sakkari double-faulting on the first and then committing unforced errors on the others to make the score 6-6. She had a similar collapse in the first-set tiebreak and logically, with the three set points saved, Andreescu was poised to carry the momentum over to the remaining tiebreak points and seal a victory. But it was her turn to succumb to nerves and give Sakkari new life by first missing a backhand service return long and then a backhand unforced error into the net.
That sent the match into a third set that revolved around the fitness issue and ultimately a defeat ending Andreescu’s 10-match winning streak at the US Open dating back to her run to the title two years ago.
Tuesday morning’s misfortune was just another of many fitness problems for Andreescu, who missed the entirety of 2020 with knee and foot injuries. She had her spring 2021 disrupted after contacting COVID-19 and endured recent toe and foot problems in Montreal and Cincinnati.
“It started a little bit in the second set at 5-all,” Andreescu explained to TSN early Tuesday about her injury against Sakkari in their round-of-16 match, “and then when I slid I felt my groin a little bit. I don’t remember when that was. Then it progressively started getting worse.”
She added about the third set when she was able to take a 2-0 lead at the start, “obviously body but I think it also had to do with the emotions running through my head, through my body. I did my best with my preparation – even during the match I was drinking a lot, eating my banana – I was breathing as much as I can to control the emotions because it was a very tough match and she was playing very well so I really had to raise my level. But unfortunately it wasn’t enough today.”
Summing up the 21-year-old said, “I’m very pleased with my performances this week, especially today. I did my best. I fought all the way through and I hope that it can show to never give up because anything is possible. And I was thinking about my true purpose in life and it’s to really inspire and motivate people. I really hope that, this match, people can take that out of it.”
She’s uncertain about when she will again be fit enough to play but the most obvious possibility would be the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, which begins on October 4. As at the US Open, except that the date is now in the fall instead of in March, Andreescu would be defending a 2019 title after the event was cancelled last year.
Losing the match, which set a new late-finish record for women at the US Open, breaking the previous mark of 1:46 a.m. set in 2016 by Madison Keys vs. Alison Riske, will mean a ranking drop from No. 7 to about No. 20 for Andreescu.
The main compensation after her four matches at Flushing Meadows is that she got to a level that was improving and that had more than a few observers believing she was again a legitimate contender for the title.
As crushing as the loss was for Andreescu, Sakkari was ecstatic with her victory. She had the memory of that 7-6(7), 3-6, 7-6(4) loss in the Miami Open semi-final to keep her vigilant despite whatever difficulties Andreescu was experiencing on the other side of the net.
Sakkari reacted like a pro, continuing to play aggressively in keeping with the massive hitting of a match that was one of the best in the women’s draw this year.
Emotionally-wrought, Sakkari was at times speechless in her post-match on-court interview, managing to say about Andreescu, “she loves this court, she has her best memories (here)…playing with the (pro-Andreescu) crowd especially it’s so good for both of us.”
Later in her media conference, the 26-year-old Greek, who claimed she has never had much success playing at night, summed up, “it was an incredible match. I didn’t have the control of the match until middle of the second set. I felt like she was better than me, but then somehow I digged in and found a way to just turn things around. I was more brave after a certain point of the match, then got my energy level a little bit higher.”
As for playing an injured opponent, she said, “you have to try and stay focused because you know really well that if you look on the other side of the net, you see that someone is hurt, you can get very stressed. You don’t know what you have to do – make balls (shots), make them run. It’s complicated. I stayed focused on myself and did simple things. I didn’t complicate my tennis in the third set. I think that’s why I got the win at the end.”
The closeness and quality of the match – played in a highly-charged atmosphere with the remaining Ashe Stadium spectators fired (and boozed?) up, and frequently chanting “Bee-Ank-Ka,” – was evident in the winners to unforced errors ratios for the two players over three-and-a-half hours of grueling competition. They were 46/43 for Sakkari and 39/41 for Andreescu.
It will next be No. 73-ranked Leylah Fernandez’s chance to try for a semi-final spot when she faces fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina on Tuesday. Her 19th birthday was on Monday and Fernandez was presented with a signed copy of Billie Jean King’s new book by a fellow Canadian, US Open tournament director Stacey Allaster.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
With it appearing that Roger Federer may be close to exiting the tennis tour, here’s a look back (from the 2001 ATP Media Guide) to a time when he was just another player and had not even won a tournament title.
Feature Photo: camerawork usa