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Column Copyright 2019 by Paul Fein

A Star Is Born and a Superstar Dims

Pressure is a privilege.” – Billie Jean King

I am not the type of person who lets the pressure get to him. I try to see it as my friend. I align with it to calm me down.” – Neymar

The only pressure, I think, is the pressure I put on myself.” – Bianca Andreescu

Bianca Andreescu calls her mother “the coolest person I know” and her role model. Maria Andreescu is also likely the most influential person in Bianca’s meteoric rise to tennis stardom because she introduced her daughter to meditation and yoga when Bianca was 12.

“I wake up every morning and the first thing I do is I meditate,” said the 19-year-old Canadian. “It’s definitely showing through my matches where I’m staying in the present moment a lot of the time. I think the mental aspect of the game separates the best from the rest.”

Andreescu would need to summon that well-practiced focus as much as her complete game and canny tactics in her first Grand Slam final at the US Open. On the other side of the net, she faced living legend Serena Williams. And inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, she was surrounded by a boisterous, pro-Williams crowd that would cheer not only Serena’s winners but also Andreescu’s errors.

The precocious Andreescu lacked experience compared to 37-year-old Williams, competing in her 33rd major final. In fact, Andreescu was born nine months after Williams won her first Grand Slam at the 1999 US Open. Williams, who was going for an elusive, record-tying 24th Grand Slam title, had frustratingly lost her last three major finals after becoming a mother two years ago.

In a chaotic final at Flushing Meadows last year, Williams lost her temper, berated the umpire, and self-destructed against Naomi Osaka, another rising star playing in her maiden major final. Williams also suffered costly mental meltdowns during upset losses at the 2009 and 2011 US Opens.

“The elephant in the room is pressure,” said ESPN analyst Chris Evert, an 18-time major champion, before the final. “Who is going to handle the pressure better?”
For high-pressure, high-stakes situations, visualization is yet another valuable technique in Andreescu’s mental arsenal. To visualize achieving her dream of winning the US Open, Andreescu wrote herself a make-believe prize-money check after she won the Orange Bowl junior title three years ago. “Ever since that moment, I just kept visualizing that,” she recalled after defeating Elise Mertens in the US Open quarterfinals.

Darren Cahill noticed Andreescu’s unusual sense of destiny three years ago during a car ride with her and Simona Halep whom he coached then. Cahill, now an ESPN analyst, recalled, “After we got out of the car, Simona said, ‘Wow! That girl is confident.’ Andreescu has a self-belief we haven’t seen in a young player in a long time. After she won her first match [at this US Open], she said, ‘One down and six more to go.’ How many young players say that?”

Seemingly born to be a tennis champion, Andreescu boasts rare a priori confidence—reminiscent of cocksure Jimmy Connors and wunderkind Boris Becker. It never wavered even though Andreescu, who lost in the first round of the 2017 and 2018 US Open qualifying, started this year ranked a lowly 178.

That ranking rose rapidly as the bulky, 5’7” Andreescu reached the Auckland final in January, and stunned the tennis world by winning Indian Wells in March. A torn shoulder rotator cuff forced her to retire in the Miami round of 16, withdraw in the French Open second round, and miss Wimbledon. Healthy again, the Canadian-born Andreescu of Romanian ancestry captured the Rogers Cup in Toronto, beating Williams, who was forced to retire, trailing 3-1 in the final, because of back spasms in their only previous match.

Heading into the US Open, the rampaging No. 15 Andreescu not only had gone unbeaten in completed matches since March 2, but more importantly, had racked up a perfect 7-0 record against top 10 opponents.

If Andreescu’s aggressive style make experts remark “She plays more like a guy,” that is no accident. During their first trip to Japan, she and her coach, Sylvain Bruneau, watched a lot of men’s matches, especially those of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, possessors of the best forehands in tennis history. The coach and student then decided Andreescu should play just like them with more topspin and power.

Unlike many of No. 8-ranked Williams’ opponents, Andreescu would not be intimidated. She boasted plenty of potent shots, a strong mental game, and like Williams, a ferocious competitiveness. “She’s a warrior, a street fighter,” said Bruneau.

Andreescu showed her fearlessness, indeed an almost a lack of respect, when she won the toss and elected to receive against the greatest server of all time. The clever decision paid off when Williams nervously double-faulted twice to lose her serve in the opening game.

As Andreescu held on to her early lead, she held her own with Williams in two keys ways. She dictated points as often as Williams, something the muscular former queen seldom encounters. And the extroverted Andreescu matched the intense Williams with shouts of “Come on!” every time she hit a terrific shot or won a big point.

Early in the tournament, Williams predicted Andreescu would reach the final. “This was the player Serena didn’t want to play,” said Evert after the rock-em, sock-em seventh game. Fighting like a wounded lioness, Williams staved off five break points. The partisan crowd roared with delight for their heroine each time.

But there would be no reprieve for Williams in the ninth game. A backhand volley winner and a forehand crosscourt winner gave Andreescu a break point. Then nerves did Williams in again. She double-faulted in the net. First set—6-3 for Andreescu.

Could the proud six-time US Open champion come back? The stats weren’t auspicious. In major finals, Williams had only a 2-9 record after losing the first set (compared to 21-0 after winning it).

Williams had talked with candor about needing to rediscover her mojo in Grand Slam finals—she won 21 of 25 before losing five of her last seven. Even her diehard fans, including the Duchess of Sussex in her player’s box, looked worried as she lost her serve at love, nervously double-faulting again on break point, to go down 2-0 in the second set.

The anguish on Williams’ face grew as she was broken two more times to give Andreescu a seemingly insurmountable 6-3, 5-1 lead. With the teenager serving, Williams belted a vicious 87-mph forehand service return winner to escape a championship point.

That shot ignited a valiant comeback. As Williams conjured two service breaks of her own to tie the score at 5-all, the deafening roars from the 23,000 spectators at one point forced Andreescu to cover her ears with her hands. “It was so loud I couldn’t hear myself think,” Andreescu told ESPN later.

Just as suddenly as Williams had rebounded, Andreescu regrouped. She held serve with the poise of a veteran and, on her fourth championship point, cracked a huge serve return than Williams couldn’t handle. Game, set, and title 6-3, 7-5 for the new teen queen.

“I love to see such a big-match player at such a young age,” said former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, a Tennis Channel analyst. “She handled the pressure in her first Grand Slam final.” In sharp contrast, “Serena is not able to play her best tennis on these big occasions. It’s all mental,” Davenport said. “She was so dominant before the final, but none of that mattered.”

Indeed, Williams channelled her past greatness as the tournament progressed, overwhelming 18th-seeded Wang Qiang 6-1, 6-0 in the quarters and 5th-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-3, 6-1 in the semis. What mattered most, though, if you’re a champion or want to be one, is winning the final.

“All of it honestly, truly is super frustrating,” Williams said afterward. “I'm, like, so close, so close, so close, yet so far away. I guess I got to keep going if I want to be a professional tennis player. And I just got to just keep fighting through it.”

But the fight, the quest for Grand Slam No. 24, looks more quixotic than ever. Williams turns 38, ancient for pro players, on September 26. She hasn’t won a tournament, let alone a major, since the 2017 Australian Open.

The Next Gen has arrived and now rules the roost. The major champions this season featured Osaka, 21, Ashleigh Barty, 23, Halep, 27, and now the youngest and most self-assured, Andreescu, 19. They and a host of young players, such as Belinda Bencic, 22, Amanda Animisova, 17, and 15-year-old sensation Coco Gauff, will all likely keep improving, while Williams declines.

Pure power players, most notably Serena and Venus Williams, dominated women’s tennis this century. But Barty and Andreescu, highly athletic and versatile players in the mold of Justine Henin, are proving that power plus finesse is an ideal combination.

Like other teen queens, such as Evert, Monica Seles, and Martina Hingis, Andreescu created a host of “firsts” at this memorable US Open. She’s the first player born in the 2000s to win a Grand Slam title, the first to win the US Open trophy in their main-draw tournament debut in the Open Era, and first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open Era. Andreescu also joined Seles as the only other woman to capture a major title in only her fourth Grand Slam main draw appearance. Finally, in this fascinating “battle of the ages,” she and Williams broke the record for the largest age gap—18 years and 263 days—between Grand Slam finalists in the Open Era.

Canada has produced two Grand Slam singles finalists this decade, Eugenie Bouchard and Milos Raonic, but both have faded as contenders. That won’t happen to Andreescu, predicts ESPN analyst and two-time major finalist Mary Joe Fernandez.

“She’s the real deal. This is not a fluke,” said Fernandez. “We’re going to see Bianca Andreescu win multiple majors. She has the complete package—how aggressive she is, how well she moves, how beautifully she serves. But what impresses me most is her mental side. She’s tough as nails. She reminds me of Chris Evert. When the pressure was on, Andreescu produced her best tennis. And you don’t see that often, especially in teenagers.”

Now Andreescu goes from being the hunter to being the hunted. It will be fascinating to see how well she handles this new and very different pressure.


THE END

Paul Fein has received more than 40 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of the Springfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player in New England. His websites are www.tennisconfidential.com and www.tennisquotes.com. His email address is: lincjeff1@comcast.net.

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