From No. 178 in WTA to No. 1 at the US Open: Bravo, Bianca Andreescu

From No. 178 in WTA to No. 1 at the US Open: Bravo, Bianca Andreescu

The 19-year-old closed out the 2019 Grand Slam season with a 6-3, 7-5 win over Serena Williams to win her first major title.

NEW YORK—Unknown. Mysterious. Exciting. Dangerous. These are the words to describe what can happen when a player competes in a Grand Slam singles final for the first time.

In a span of less than 25 minutes, all four of those adjectives had entered Bianca Andreescu’s world.  At 5:35 p.m., serving at 6-3, 5-1, 40-30, the 19-year-old Canadian stood one point away from an incredible, routine win over Serena Williams in the US Open final.

Andreescu struck a 106-M.P.H. serve down the center to Williams’ forehand. Williams connected with the ball with just enough pace and topspin to hit an untouchable down-the-line winner. 

Intentional? Questionable. 

Serena? Absolutely.  

From there, Williams won 15 of the next 19 points.

With the set leveled at 5-all, no one would have been surprised if Andreescu continued to shrivel. But she didn’t. At 30-15, Andreescu flung a 103-M.P.H. ace down the T.  Two points later, she went ahead 6-5.

Just short of 6:00 p.m., Williams served at 15-40—two more championship points. On the first, Williams carved a wide slice serve, 101 M.P.H. for an ace. At 30-40, though, Williams missed a second serve. Over the course of the match, only 44 percent of her first serves had landed inside the service box. This was largely the result of Andreescu returning with such force that Williams frequently felt the need to serve with more pace than usual.

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“She does what she does best, and that’s move up to the ball, that’s hit winners, that’s play with a ton of intensity,” Williams said.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The words were reminiscent of those uttered 20 years ago by Martina Hingis after she’d lost the 1999 US Open final to the 17-year-old Serena: “You can’t just push the ball over the net. She just kills it.”     

“You’re not playing history,” said Tennis Channel's Tracy Austin, who in 1979 won the first of her two US Open singles at the age of 16. “You’re playing the ball.”

As calmly as if practicing her return on a Sunday morning in front of no one, Andreescu laced a forehand for a winner.

Austin at 16 in ’79. Serena at 17 in ’99. Andreescu at 19 in ’19. Precocity and end-of-the-decade US Open wins make a nice fit.       

Less than two hours later, Andreescu entered the USTA Media Room. A year ago, Andreescu had exited the USTA National Tennis Center in anonymity. She’d lost a first round qualifying match on Court 4 that day, simply one of dozens ushered back to tennis’ minor leagues. 

This Saturday evening, Andreescu would depart in a very different way. Inside the biggest stadium in tennis, in front of a crowd louder than it had ever been, versus the greatest woman in tennis history, Andreescu had become the first player to win the US Open the first time she’d played it. She’d also become the first Canadian—man or woman—to earn a Grand Slam singles title

We see these grand outcomes, using terms like “a star is born” to wrap those who accomplish great victories in some sort of iconic swaddling cloth, as if that victory was the moment of their birth. But while Andreescu has certainlu just gone supernova, she was well aware of the long road that had preceded it bursting across the sky. 

“This wasn’t the only time I visualized playing in the finals actually against Serena Williams,” said Andreescu. “It’s so crazy, man.” At which point, Andreescu began to cry. Though she quickly gathered herself, the vulnerability shown by Andreescu’s answer revealed that for all we ponder feet and legs, arms and eyes, shoulders and hips, head and racquet, the critical organ that most fuels a tennis player is the heart. 

“I’ve been dreaming of this moment for the longest time," Andreescu continued. "Like I said after I won the Orange Bowl, a couple months after, I realize believed that I could be at this stage. Since then, honestly I’ve been visualizing it almost every single day. For it to become a reality is just so crazy. I guess these visualizations really, really work.”

Mary Carillo catches up with US Open champion Bianca Andreescu:

This time, Andreescu began to laugh. But she would also recall the Andreescu who’d lost in the qualifying in 2018. 

“I don't think I was ever as composed as I am now, or even a year ago,” she said. “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, too.

"But I found that that way wasn't working to my advantage at all. So I started seeing—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. I think that's really been helping me, even in tough situations.”

At the start of 2019, Andreescu was ranked 178th in the world. Instantly, she soared. January began with a run from the qualifying to the finals in Auckland. March had seen her take the title in Indian Wells. In August, she won Toronto. Prior to today’s final, Andreescu had gone 7-0 versus Top 10 players, all those wins happening in 2019. But there was also a shoulder injury that had derailed her for much of the spring and early summer Andreescu’s exile had added to her mystique and mystery as a player of note, but also one who’d yet to prove herself at the majors.  

From this moment on, millions who even yesterday had never heard the name Bianca Andreescu would recognize her.More pointedly, they would ask things of her. There would be interviews and endorsement opportunities and autographs and selfies and much of the attendant but rewarding artifice that comprises tennis’ success cycle—photo opportunities with politicians and celebrities eager to attach themselves to Andreescu’s recent success, fashion shoots that would last longer than practice sessions, intriguing but potentially troubling conversations with her managers and family about money, travel, scheduling.  Over the course of one remarkable fortnight, Andreescu’s life had changed.

But had she? Consider what Andreescu said to herself after withstanding Williams’ comeback and winning the critical 5-all game in the second set: “I told myself to put the goddamn ball inside the court and just breathe as much I could because she was serving, first of all.” 

Put the ball in the court. Breathe. 

Simple. But not easy. You’re goddamn right it’s not easy. So long as Andreescu keeps those principles in her mind and even closer to her heart, she likely will be a major force in tennis all through her 20s—and into tennis’ '20s, too.

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