Osaka wins first installment of Battle of the Future over Andreescu

Osaka wins first installment of Battle of the Future over Andreescu

In her Beijing quarterfinal match, the 21-year-old Japanese did what she was supposed to do against the relentless Canadian teen—never give in—and let the result take care of itself.

“Just do what you’re supposed to do,” Leonard Francois, Naomi Osaka’s father and coach, told her after she lost the first set to Bianca Andreescu in Beijing on Friday.

Do what you’re supposed to do, and the result will take care of itself: That’s good advice, but at the time it sounded like something that would be much easier said than done. Even if Osaka did everything she was supposed to do—make first serves, stay aggressive but consistent, win the key points—she still seemed to be facing an uphill battle against this particular opponent. Andreescu seemed to have forgotten how to lose. She was on a 17-match win streak, a run that included a victory over Serena Williams in the US Open final.

More important, Andreescu had raised her game at exactly the right moment to win the first set over Osaka. After racing to a 5-1 lead, Andreescu let Osaka level at 5-5; but then, as she has so many times in 2019, she stopped the rot immediately and won eight straight points for the set. This was the Andreescu playbook: Build a lead, give the lead back, then win anyway. The Canadian seems to need to feel some scoreboard pressure to play her best.

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As well as that playbook has served Andreescu, it comes with obvious risks; this time, finally, it didn’t work. It didn’t work because (a) she was facing a two-time Grand Slam champion who was coming off a title run of her own in Tokyo; and (b) in giving back that first-set lead, Andreescu had also given Osaka hope. If she could come back from 1-5 down, why couldn’t she come back from any deficit?

That’s what Osaka did in each of the last two sets. Both times she went down 1-3, and both times, rather than hanging her head or losing confidence in her shots, she broke back right away. Time and again in this match, it looked as if Andreescu had found her groove and was on the verge of pulling away; time and again, Osaka countered with something even better.

In the second set, she powered her way through five straight games, and broke Andreescu for 5-3 with a perfectly reflexed backhand pass winner, and a perfectly measured backhand lob that touched the back of the baseline. In the third set, Osaka was broken at love for 3-1, before breaking back with backhand winner. At 4-4, with the match on the line, Osaka produced another backhand winner to break. Serving for the match at 5-4, she survived a final Andreescu onslaught and, on her third match point, closed out a 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 win in style, with an ace. After the first set, Osaka was minus five in her winner-to-error count; she finished the match plus one.

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“I just tried to breathe,” the 2018 US Open champ said after conquering the 2019 Open champ. “I just told myself I have to keep fighting.”

Andreescu was destined to lose a match eventually, and she was certainly destined to lose a close match eventually. Before she served at 3-2 in the second set, she made a call to her coach, Sylvain Bruneau. “Keep your shape” on your shots, he told her—in other words, hit with spin and height. After that, Osaka began to take over the rallies, and Andreescu lost four straight games. Did she concentrate on too much shape, and not enough pace?

For Osaka, hanging in long enough to win this Battle of the Future had to be satisfying; she’s now on an eight-match streak of her own. It wasn’t the shots she hit that were important or encouraging; it was the positive attitude she kept even when she was hanging by a thread. In the end, like her father said, Osaka did what she was supposed to do—never give in—and let the result take care of itself.