NEW YORK — In one of the promos that runs on American television coverage of the U.S. Open, players are asked about their memories of Serena Williams’ first victory at the tournament.
“I wasn’t,” Bianca Andreescu says, pausing a beat, “born.”
And now the Canadian teen will meet the American legend in the finals here on Saturday, with Andreescu trying for her first U.S. Open title and Williams going for her seventh, 20 years after her first.
A huge comeback in the second set gave Andreescu a straight-sets win (7-6, 7-5) in a tremendously tight thriller over Belinda Bencic.
When it was over, Andreescu had her hands on her head again, looking shocked. First U.S. Open main draw. First U.S. Open final. Those things are not supposed to go together.
“I don’t know what to say,” she said on court.
Here’s one thing she could say: She’s the first Canadian to make a U.S. Open singles final ever, and the first to make any Slam final since Milos Raonic at Wimbledon three years ago. No Canadian has won a Slam singles title.
The victory sets up a rematch with Williams from last month in Toronto at the Rogers Cup, where the American legend pulled out early in the first set, citing back spasms.
Andreescu played a resilient first set on Thursday night, unable to put much pressure at all on the rock-steady Bencic, who repeatedly had chances to break the Canadian’s serve. But Andreescu bailed herself out just as repeatedly, saving all six break points in the set, one of them a set point for Bencic, and sent the first set to a tiebreaker. Once there, she dominated, winning the first five points and the last two to take it 7-3. It was a tremendous escape, a set in which she played defence most of the time but won just enough of the big points.
The escape routes closed up in the second set, though, with Bencic feasting on second serves and Andreescu unable to land enough of her first serves in play. All of a sudden it was a 4-1 lead in the set for Bencic, and then 5-2.
At which point Andreescu did that thing where she shakes off whatever has been causing her to lose focus, zeroes in again, and just starts hammering the ball all over the court. She broke Bencic’s serve, and then did it again, and then it was Bencic serving to try to close out the set. Bencic actually won the first two points in that game, and then the Canadian ripped a forehand winner, then outlasted her on two more points — just relentless tennis — to get to a break point. Bencic, so solid early, was now shaken. Double-fault, and the set was even again.
“I think when I’m down, I play my best tennis,” Andreescu said. “Whenever my back is against the wall, I think I’m just extra focused in those moments. I remember I told myself at 5-2 that I didn’t want to go in three sets. So I think just that switched my mindset. I was just really, really focused.”
Two games later, Andreescu gutted out three match points, finally converting on the third when Bencic couldn’t handle a deep return. Amazingly, the comeback was complete.
Bencic, 22, is a former teen sensation herself. She cracked the top-10 before her 20th birthday, but a wrist injury and long layoff saw her eventually fall out of the top-300. She was more than a worthy foe for someone who has been playing so well this season.
“It wasn’t easy at all,” Andreescu said. “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. But that’s what makes her such a great player.”
“But the main reason I won today I think is because I just kept fighting. I never let up.”
The accolades and accomplishments that Andreescu have been stacking up like cord wood over her rookie season have moved from impressive to ludicrous. Her quarter-final win over Elise Mertens, coming after the Canadian dropped a sloppy first set in soupy and uncomfortable New York humidity, gave her a 22-match winning streak, aside from two injury-related withdrawals. Put another way, no opponent had beaten her on the court, had won a match point against her, since mid-March. She did have a long injury absence in June and July, which puts that streak in a different context, but she also has more hard-court victories this season than anyone on the WTA Tour.
She’s the first teen to make the U.S. Open semis in more than a decade, and is only the fourth woman to reach the final four in New York in her first main-draw appearance, joining three of the sport’s luminaries: Chris Evert, Venus Williams and Pam Shriver. She’s also only the third Canadian women to advance that far in the Open’s 139-year history, joining Carling Bassett (1984) and Lois Moyes (1909). Andreescu was asked after her quarter-final win what she knew about Moyes. “I didn’t know there would be a pop quiz,” she said.
Through all of that, and the steep — steep like up the side of a Manhattan skyscraper — climb from 178th in the WTA rankings at the end of last year to a guaranteed spot inside the top 10 when this tournament is over, Andreescu has seemed genuinely unfazed by it all. She’s just been taking it in, winning matches, doing her thing. Only when she beat Elise Mertens in the quarters did she finally appear shocked, holding her head in her hands and asking if this was real life.
A reporter pointed out after that victory that she had already won in Indian Wells and Toronto, so why was she so stunned?
“Well, I mean, I think anyone would be shocked to be in the semi-finals of a Grand Slam, because all of us dream of this moment ever since we’re kids, ever since we picked up a racquet,” she said.
But then another writer noted that while it’s true that she might not have imagined such a reality a year ago, it didn’t seem that hard to imagine a couple of weeks ago, as she was ripping through her rookie season.
She did not dispute the point. Bianca Andreescu, Canadian-born to Romanian parents who left their country to seek a better life after the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, is undeniably confident, and she plays with an evident swagger, bashing shots all over the court and punctuating the big points with enthusiastic hollers. But she’s careful to remain just this side of cocky, too.
“At this point I think anyone can win the tournament,” she allowed, after booking her place in the semis.
And now, only two people can. The woman who has more Grand Slam titles than anyone, and the one who has only ever played in four of them.
It would seem like a tremendous mismatch. But at this point, we are completely out of Bianca-related surprises.