It could be said that 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu, virtually unknown in the elite tennis community as recently as a year ago, played with aplomb in Saturday’s U.S. Open women’s final. With verve.
Ripped groundstrokes. Tireless footwork. Solid tactical decisions.
But what really seemed to matter was that she was brave. Facing 23-time major tournament champion Serena Williams, who had been blowing the competition to smithereens through the first six rounds of the tournament, Andreescu hammered out an early lead, then withstood a harrowing Williams comeback to prevail, 6-3, 7-5.
“I tried to step on the court and not focus on who I’m playing,” Andreescu said. “The game plan right from the start was to make her work for every ball, to get as many returns in the court as possible. I think she was intimidated a little by that.”
She is 18 years and 263 days younger than Williams, the largest age gap between women’s finalists in Grand Slam play during the open era, which dates to 1968. She was playing her first U.S. Open, only her fourth Slam event, with a previous best finish of the second round at this year’s Australian and French Opens.
And she had to deal with Williams’ presence and power, plus a full Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd that was howling for a Williams rebound. Down a set and 1-5 in the second, Williams fought off an Andreescu match point with a blistering forehand winner and ultimately took that long game when Andreescu hit a backhand long.
The fans bellowed.
“I had some doubts,” Andreescu said, “because I’ve witnessed her come back from being 5-0 down, 5-1 down, 5-2 down. I just told myself to stick with my tactics.”
Williams suddenly found her footing and held to 3-5. The crowd went to caterwauling. A winning Williams cutoff volley and another Andreescu error and it was 4-5. The spectators raised the volume higher and Williams threw in two aces and two service winners in the next game to make it 5-5.
“I could barely hear myself think,” Andreescu said. “It was really, really loud. It definitely wasn’t easy when she was coming back. But it was expected. She’s a champion. That’s what champions do.”
Somehow Andreescu gathered herself. Williams netted a backhand and Andreescu was ahead 6-5. Andreescu got to two match points in the 12th game and, on the second one, her clean forehand return into the far corner brought down the curtain.
Her coach, Sylvain Bruneau, was not surprised.
“She’s kind of the full package,” Bruneau said. “So if you look from the athletic standpoint, she’s a great athlete. She’s strong. She’s fast. And then look at her mental aspect. She’s as tough as it gets. The bigger the occasion, the bigger she hits.”
Andreescu’s progress to overnight sensation had been building during the Open as she knocked off former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and former prodigy Belinda Bencic. Among the tennis insiders who said they expected big things from Andreescu was Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.
Instead of a record 24th major tournament title for Williams, Andreescu became the seventh first-time winner in the last 11 Slam events, joining Ashleigh Barty (2019 French), Naomi Osaka (’18 U.S.), Simona Halep (’18 French), Wozniacki (’18 Australian), Sloane Stephens (’17 U.S.) and Jelena Ostapenko (’17 French).
Williams, despite her historic success, has won only one of the last 13 majors, the 2017 Australian.
Through most of the delightful entertainment, Williams’ usual shouting exhalations accompanying her shot-making were mixed with her slumping body language. She repeatedly dumped the ball into the net, mostly off her backhand.
So meet Andreescu. Born in Canada, discovered tennis at 7 after her parents settled the family for a few years in their native Romania before returning to Canada when she was 11.
A year ago, during the Open, Andreescu was injured and not bothering to watch the tournament on television.
But she’s had this vision, she said, of playing Williams in a big final. She models her game on Halep, the Romanian star, the woman who upset Williams in the Wimbledon final two months ago.
“It’s been a long journey,” Andreescu said. “Well, not so long. I’m only 19 . . . ”