Age overcomes youth as Sevastova beats Andreescu at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE—Though in the end, 13th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova would beat 18-year-old Bianca Andreescu 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, this was a case where the journey was less the reward and more a form of punishment. Consider this two-hour and 14-minute generational tussle a three-act torture chamber—the first and third inflicted by the 28-year-old Sevastova, the second an interlude, punctuated by the elder twisting the knife on herself. 

Andreescu is January’s Cinderella. The Canadian had opened 2019 with a big splash, in Auckland coming out of the qualifying to earn four main-draw wins—including over reigning Aussie champ Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams—before losing a three-set final to Julia Goerges. That effort saw her ranking soar from 178 at the end of 2018 to what’s now a career-high of 106. This year’s Australian Open is only the second time Andreescu has played in a major. 

“Everything is just clicking for me,” said an enthused Andreescu today following her post-match ice bath. 

As you might expect, the bedrock of Andreescu’s game is firepower. The two-handed backhand in particular is a bazooka, be it whipped crosscourt or pounded deep down the line. Andreescu’s service motion, though still rather mechanical, gives hopes of possibly eventually becoming a smooth delivery. And for much of this match—but, tellingly, not all of it—Andreescu’s overhead was excellent. Though in today’s press conference she claimed she was good at changing the rhythm of a rally, as Andreescu develops, it will be intriguing to see how extensively she invests in variety in collaboration with linear artillery.        

Sevastova occupies a very different tennis country, perhaps even another planet. Her playing style conjures up the opening lines of the classic TV show, “The Twilight Zone”—“a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination.”

Most contemporary pros, including Andreescu, are forks—forceful stabbers. Sevastova wields the racquet like a switchblade, adept at the carved slice, the delicate drop shot, the slashing forehand. When melded with Sevastova’s intermittent petulance, the overall effect on her opponents is one of a pinprick-like discomfort so vague that it can trigger cluelessness about what exactly is happening.

Rather ignorantly confusing Sevastova with a retriever, Andreescu said, “Her weapon is just getting every ball.”    

Act two saw the arrival of darkness. Serving in the second set at 6-3, 3-2, 40-15, Sevastova lost that game and dropped the next after holding a love-40 lead. Having virtually handed Andreescu the second set, 6-3, Sevastova served in the third at 1-all, 15-40.

For some, the pressure of competition triggers hitting too big. For Sevastova, tennis’ version of a tortured artist, the mode is to shrivel and, even when winning, glare and mutter at her support team with a smoldering petulance. This might have been the time for Andreescu to topple her elder. 

But then Sevastova recovered. That third game lasted 14 points, Sevastova coaxing an error from Andreescu’s high backhand volley with a delicately hoisted lob. Three games later, Andreescu distraught in the muggy conditions, the Canadian resumed her prior role as the mouse to Sevastova’s cat. With Andreescu serving at 2-3, Sevastova didn’t so much play the first point as conduct it—dropshot, lob, crisp forehand winner. 

For this month’s belle of the ball, pumpkin time had arrived cruelly, in the form of cramps in her right calf and hamstring. 

“I drank a lot of pickle juice,” said Andreescu, “but obviously it didn’t help.”

A weary Andreescu dropped her serve to give Sevastova a 4-2 lead. Over the course of the third set, she’d eroded with the speed of a character in a “Twilight Zone” episode. 

“She was the stronger one today in the third set,” said Andreescu.

Some matches end violently. Not this one, which technically closed out with an Andreescu double-fault and a routine down-the-line backhand winner. But in other ways, it had ended far earlier, in Sevastova regaining interest and gently applying the screws just tightly enough to help Andreescu become an accomplice in her own demise. 

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