Andreescu's awesome ascent leads to US Open final clash with Serena

Andreescu's awesome ascent leads to US Open final clash with Serena

After prevailing over Belinda Bencic in Thursday's semifinals, the 19-year-old will become Canada's first major singles champion with a win over Serena Williams on Saturday.

NEW YORK—Fresh in the moment, staggered and delighted upon having reached the US Open final the first time she’d played the tournament, Bianca Andreescu could likely relate to these words written by her fellow Canadian native, author Saul Bellow: “Only the present is real—the here-and-now. Seize the day.”

This was a woman who at the start of 2019 was ranked 178th in the world. On Thursday night, Andreescu’s awesome ascent continued with a resilient 7-6 (3), 7-5 semifinal win over 13th-seeded Belinda Bencic. Whether she wins or loses Saturday’s final, Andreescu will wake up Monday morning in the Top 10. 

Past midnight in the media interview room, Andreescu said, “A lot of emotions are running through my body right now. . . I’ve always dreamt of this moment since I was a little kid.”

One hopes that tonight we saw the first installment of what will be a great rivalry for many years. Bencic and Andreescu each play a brand of sharp, powerful, eclectic tennis. Bencic, the crisp groundstroker with the Melanie Molitor-Martina Hingis pedigree, is superb at taking balls early and commanding rallies with deep, hard, low drives. Andreescu is also an excellent aggressor, owner of a versatile mix of power, movement and first-rate serving. “She has a clear game style pattern with the spinning forehand,” said Bencic, “then like cutting into the court.”  

In theory, when a set reaches 6-all, each player should feel equally content. So much for theories. All through the first set, Bencic had dictated the terms with her sleek groundstrokes and ability to direct the ball into various nooks and crannies of the court.

“It wasn't easy at all,” said Andreescu. “She hits the ball really hard and really flat I think every shot. My knees were to the ground. I think it wasn't too fun playing her.”

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Not once in the first set did Bencic face a break point. Repeatedly, she gained the advantage on Andreescu’s serve, earning six break points, including a set point at 4-5, ad out. But Andreescu had erased that with a resounding down-the-line forehand winner. Andreescu’s ability to hit big under pressure summoned memories of another teen prodigy who lit up Ashe Stadium, Jennifer Capriati.

And so when Andreescu held at 5-6, it became a match of two temperaments; the annoyed Bencic, the relieved Andreescu. Emotion made all the difference. Bencic began the tiebreaker with a double-fault. Andreescu swung freely, swiftly went up 5-0, and ran out the tiebreaker 7-3.

Yet as buoyant as Andreescu likely felt, as vexed as Bencic surely was, the tables suddenly turned. Bencic broke Andreescu in the opening game of the second set, held for 2-0 and in this set, she not only challenged Andreescu’s serve, she captured it, breaking to go up 4-1 and 5-2.

But each time after Bencic was broken. At key stages throughout this match, the forward movement that had so aided the Swiss versus Naomi Osaka—she went 10 for 10 at the net in that match—frequently betrayed her tonight in the form of awkward transition movements and several stiffly struck volleys. The implication was that as the second set wore on, Bencic was unwilling to take advantage of the openings she had created to move forward and hit volleys. Frequently given a reprieve, Andreescu skillfully mixed defense and offense.

“I tried to change the rhythm as much as possible,” said Andreescu. “That was the goal right from the beginning of the match.”

Said Bencic, “It was a big fight, a big battle. I think it was very tactical. Bianca plays smart.”

Even then, Bencic served for the second set at 5-4, 30-love. But from there in that game, she failed to get a first serve in the court. Andreescu proved the better competitor, impressively so at 30-15 when, over the course of a 12-shot rally, she combined height, depth and, finally, carved a slice backhand that elicited an errant backhand. Two points later, Bencic double-faulted.

It had been the theatre of frustration for Bencic. She hadn’t faced a break point in the first set, but ended up losing it. In the second set she broke Andreescu, three times but also surrendered three straight service games. This was akin to a football team that had moved the ball all over the field but been stymied inside the 20-yard-line. Call it cumulative pressure in reverse.

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Once again taken off death row, Andreescu played commanding tennis. She held at 5-all. A second tiebreaker was a nice thought, but in that 5-6 game, the first-rate length Bencic had often shown this fortnight largely abandoned her.

The kind of tennis Bencic plays requires profound discipline in the form of footwork and confident swings. If you’re trying to repeatedly take balls on the rise, you darn well better commit to your swings. But at 30-30, Andreescu was the bolder player lacing a down-the-line backhand winner to earn her first match point. Bencic fought off that one, then another. Holding a point for 6-all, Bencic’s forehand betrayed her two straight times—one wide, the next into the net. On Andreescu’s third match point, the Canadian struck a forceful return deep and wide to Bencic’s forehand. All the Swiss could do was poke it into the net.   

 “It was such a battle that we both kind of played well,” said Bencic. “I think it was not about nerves or that we, like, were playing bad or shanking balls or something. I think it was just here and there some stupid mistakes from my side, good shots from her side, some lines, some net cords. Tennis is very fast. Things turn around very fast. Unfortunately for me today was the other way.”

During her post-match press conference early this Friday morning, Andreescu recalled a moment from the year she turned 16, won a prestigious junior tournament and wrote herself a check for winning the US Open. Saturday she’ll be getting a real one for at least $1.9 million. To see this 19-year-old compete so effectively all year long—especially inside Arthur Ashe Stadium—has been surprising and refreshing. Seize the day? Better yet: Seize the year.

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