Bianca Andreescu’s WTA Finals adventure is off to a rough start

One hour between match point for Bianca Andreescu and match point for Simona Halep.

That’s how she flips.

Which means the Canadian-Romanian has dug herself a deep hole at the $14-million WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China after falling in three sets to the Romanian-Romanian.

It was a debut appearance for the Mississauga-born teenager at the year-end tournament that features the top eight women from the 2019 tour.

Reigning Wimbledon champion versus reigning U.S. Open champion.

A veteran who has struggled with injury of late against the sensational 19-year-old newcomer who grew up idolizing her.

But Halep’s wiles, grafted to her dogged defence — no better retriever on the circuit — prevailed over an opponent whose balloon deflated down the stretch, careering from energized and commanding to wilting and depleted.

Just over a week ago, Andreescu was dropping the puck for a Leafs-Bruins game at Scotiabank Arena, basking in a standing ovation. Monday she was on the other side of the planet, contending with the marquee names in the women’s game. And she looked fatigued, all spent of her trademark buoyancy as the three-set match came to its 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3 conclusion after two hours and 34 minutes.

“I think I was executing the right tactics,” Andreescu said afterwards. “My serve. My return was good today, for most of the match at least. I didn’t feel intimidated at all stepping on the court.

“I know I looked up to her a lot, so being able to player her was really fun. Yeah, maybe I’ll get to play her again here, get my revenge.”

The hot new flavour in tennis had her foot firmly on Halep’s throat at the end of the 38-minute opening set, aggressive and assertive. Feasting on Halep’s meek second serve, taking the ball early and in the air, moving deftly around the court, painting the lines, exhibiting power and pace with a mix of shots that had Halep flummoxed.

Perhaps Halep, seeded fifth to Andreescu’s fourth, was even regretting the advice she’d given the girl at the Rogers Cup a couple of years ago, during a shared ride to a promotional event, when she urged the teen to hurry up and turn pro, play the big tournaments. “I told her she has to stop juniors because she’s strong enough to make the next step.”

Although nobody could have foreseen how many quick steps Andreescu would take in 2019, claiming two prestige titles — Indian Wells and Rogers Cup — before defeating Serena Williams in Flushing Meadows to become Canada’s first Grand Slam singles champion.

It was the first ever confrontation between Andreescu and Halep, coming in the richest tennis tournament for either men or women.

The Canadian got off to a bang-up start, winning four straight games in the first set and doing it with relative ease. In the second set, she began to sag while Halep gradually started to her impose her will, orchestrating points and better intuiting when Andreescu would go to the net, prepared for the drop volley that had flat-footed her earlier.

Andreescu delighted the crowd with a return through her legs and twice came back from a break down, both women frustrated — racket-banging — over wayward serves and an inability to consolidate their hard-earned edges. Halep held at 5-5 to stay in the match, then again at 6-6, on match point for Andreescu, with smart baseball-rally play and a terrific backhand winner up the line, sending it to a tiebreak.

The Rottweiler Romanian got a rapid 3-0 jump on Andreescu, but the Canadian battled back to draw even at the changeover, then fended off set points at 6-4 and 6-5. Knotted at 6-6, Andreescu yanked a forehand wide, throwing her racket in disgust, then closed out on her serve.

By that juncture, Andreescu — who’d also been ordered by the chair umpire to take a medical timeout earlier, to address a bleeding nick on her knee — was wincing on some strenuous shots, back muscles apparently tightening up. She received treatment on her lower back between the second and third sets but was clearly not as mobile when play resumed. The teenager had back injuries last year, though it was a small rotator cuff tear that cost her a chunk of this season, including withdrawal from the French Open prior to her second-round match and taking a pass on Wimbledon.

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“My back friggin’ hurts,” she admitted to reporters after this match.

There had been no back problems recently and Andreescu didn’t want to use it as an excuse for Monday’s loss.

“I really don’t want to blame my back. But I felt I didn’t have the same power (in the third set) as I did in the first and second set. But I fought well with what I had in the third. I’m proud of that.

“Still, pretty disappointed.”

Andreescu knuckled down to secure an early break in the third frame, up 2-1, but couldn’t convert any of the multiple chances she had to extend that lead to 3-1 and Halep pounced on the wobble, flipping a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 advantage, then 5-3, going from 30-30 in the second-last game to winning the last six points. The final game, on her serve, was the only one Halep won to love.

The Canadian was 7 for 15 on break-point chances; Halep was 6 for 8.

“Today was a challenge because she’s almost 10 years younger than me,’’ said Halep. “I was really proud of what I did after having a back injury for almost a month.”

It’s not the end of the world, or the WTA Finals, for Andreescu. The first stage of the tournament is a round-robin affair, with the top two in each of the two groups advancing to the semis. So Andreescu could still get that far, although she’ll need others to falter.

Still, after losing in the semifinals to Naomi Osaka in Beijing earlier this month — which brought a halt to her 17-match winning streak — Andreescu has now dropped two matches in a row for the first time in well over a year.

She’s No. 4 in the world — was way outside the top 100 when the year began — and a triumph in Shenzhen could have propelled her to No. 2. But all Ashleigh Barty has to do in her match against Osaka on Tuesday is put one ball in play and she’s guaranteed to finish 2019 as No. 1. The Australian defeated Belinda Bencic on Sunday in a comeback three-setter, which was really all she needed. Earlier Monday, defending champion Elina Svitolina stretched her unbeaten run at the tournament, beating Karolina Pliskova 7-6 (12), 6-4.

More worrisome, perhaps, is that Andreescu didn’t sound at all reassuring that her sudden back flare-up is a minor ailment that won’t force her to drop out of future matches, with her next scheduled for Wednesday.

“We’ll see.”

Rosie DiManno

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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