NEW YORK—It was just a passing remark by the babbling brook that is sometimes Bianca Andreescu, spontaneous teenager. And, oh yeah, Canada’s first singles Grand Slam champion ever.
She was smiling broadly as she revisited her first break of Serena Williams in Game 1, Set 1, after the tennis legend had opened their U.S. Open final with an exclamatory ace.
“I think she double-faulted for me to win the game,” Andreescu said, correctly. “The game plan right from the start was to make her work for every ball, to get as many returns in the court as possible.
“I think she was intimidated a little bit by it.”
Intimidated? In my memory, no opponent has ever described Serena as intimidated. That takes cojones, the kind of brass maybe only an upstart dare deploy with the greatest player ever.
Granted, at almost 38, Williams is edging toward the twilight of her career — if that can absurdly be said about a player who has made the finals of four Grand Slams in the past 16 months. But the landscape is changing. For all the bending of the knee that younger players execute in genuine respect for an icon, they’re not part of the group that has lost and lost and lost to Williams at majors over the last two decades.
She’s not their nemesis. None of the new guard is dragging around a 3-20 career record, the humiliating ledger of Williams’ domination over Maria Sharapova. Still, many of the next generation have felt the sting of Williams’ serve, the sheer amplitude of her reputation. No doubt some hope she would just get on with it already, retire with her mythic dimensions intact. Get. Out. Of. The. Way.
It was interesting to see how many of these younger and youngish female players poured their congratulations into Andreescu’s social media feed Saturday night into Sunday morning, even opponents such as Kirsten Flipkens, whom Andreescu had defeated earlier in the tournament. In a profession not known for a whole lot of girl-bonding — Genie Bouchard once famously said she didn’t want to make friends on the circuit — there was clearly a lot of vicarious thrill in the Canadian’s victory. To some extent, Andreescu had prevailed over Williams for all of them.
Just as 20-year-old Naomi Osaka had done in Flushing Meadows last September, in straight sets, in one of the most tumultuous matches ever, after Williams lost her nut — perhaps legitimately — over unsportsmanlike penalties. Williams was livid that she’d been accused of cheating with coach Patrick Mouratoglou gesticulating from the player’s box.
The future of tennis, which is in fact here already, is about a long-lasting rivalry to come between Osaka and Andreescu, both of them with playful personalities and wry observations. The millennials and thereabouts also include French Open winner Ashleigh Barty, breakthrough ingenues Coco Gauff (15) and Sofia Kenin (20), Daria Kasatkina (22), Anett Kontaveit (23) and Belinda Bencic (22).
The Mississauga-born Andreescu only turned 19 in June and hoisted her trophy here Saturday in apparent incredulity. Except not really.
She has just one year on the big girl tour, and just four majors on the resumé. She was unable to get out of qualifying at Flushing Meadows the last two years. But make no mistake, Andreescu has been eyeballing this triumph since late 2018, when she was still ranked 178th in the world.
Since making the final of the Auckland Open in January — dispatching Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams in the process — Andreescu has rocketed upward in the women’s firmament and will be No. 5 in the new rankings Monday. Her first tour title was prestigious Indian Wells tournament in March. Her second, the Rogers Cup in August, when Serena withdrew trailing 3-1 in the final, suffering from back spasms.
It was Indian Wells, though, where everybody sat up and took notice, with the buzz beginning to percolate that here was a future Slam champion. As Flipkens informed her Twitter followers late Saturday, what she’d told Andreescu at their net handshake last week was: “Congrats, girl. You can win this tournament here. Believe in it, OK?”
The composure on Arthur Ashe Stadium, in front of a Serena-besotted crowd so loud that Andreescu at one point stuck her fingers in her ears to tune them out, is what most impressed. Beyond the power and craftiness of her game. She never cracked mentally, even when Williams began to hit with greater authority and certainty, rallying from down 5-1 in the second set before Andreescu drove in the final nail, on the American’s serve, with a forehand winner into empty space in the corner. The new champion would celebrate till dawn with friends and then primp for photos atop the Rockefeller Center.
Andreescu, who overcame a serious shoulder injury after Indian Wells — she was sidelined three months — and other ailments, including her back, in recent years, insists she has not always been so poised and self-confident.
“I don’t think I was ever as composed as I am now, or even a year ago,” she told reporters. “I would get really down on myself and I would get very negative thoughts going through my mind. I would smash racquets. I’d just yell at myself during matches. Actually, not even during matches, even during practice.
“But I found that wasn’t working to my advantage at all. So I started seeing …”
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She caught herself there, realizing maybe not all details should be openly shared.
“I’ll say I started seeking some advice from other people. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to have a very positive outlook on everything. That’s really been helping me, even in tough situations.”
Nevertheless, Andreescu gave herself a scolding during the crossover when a resurgent Williams had scrapped back to 5-5. Twice Andreescu had the championship point on her racket and twice she had atypically blinked, broken and broken.
“I told myself to put the goddamn ball inside the court and just breathe as much as I could because she was serving. I wanted to win the first point to show her that I am in it to win it.”
She didn’t win the first point. But she won the last one.
And then, during the on-court trophy presentation, being the nice Canadian she is, Andreescu actually apologized to the crowd for beating Williams. “I know you guys wanted Serena to win, so I’m so sorry.”
Yeah, not really.
Presented with her first Slam silver hardware, to say nothing of a $3.8-million (U.S.) cheque, Andreescu seemed unsure what to do with it.
“I was so clueless. There were two sides. The side with the names and the other side with something else. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t look like an idiot.”
Her girlish charm even won over Serena’s fans.
US Open champion, 2019, just like it says on the trophy.