Only a few minutes after she’d begun the biggest match of her young career, Bianca Andreescu was told it was over.
Ms. Andreescu pulled a startled face and looked over at Serena Williams. The greatest women’s player in history was sobbing in her chair. Ms. Williams had just informed Rogers Cup officials that, owing to a back injury, she could not continue. The match ended 3-1 after 19 minutes.
Most players would have sat there. A few might have celebrated demurely. Ms. Andreescu instead walked over to Ms. Williams, kneeled in front of her and reached out for her hand. The older woman took it tentatively.
“I’m so sorry,” Ms. Andreescu said, as Ms. Williams cried a little harder. “Are you okay?”
Far more than anything that happened on the Aviva Centre tennis court in Toronto during the remarkable week just past, this felt like a changing of the guard. The future and what is quickly becoming the past were colliding in the present.
Ms. Andreescu’s win via concession makes her the first homegrown champion of the Rogers Cup in 50 years. Though there are several aspirants, she is now the champion of Canadian tennis.
Ms. Andreescu, 19, who lives in Thornhill, Ont., has come so far that it already feels as though she’s been around forever. It’s getting harder to remember that less than a year ago only an obsessive would have known her name. At this point in 2018, she wasn’t ranked in the top 200 in the world.
People perked up in January after she beat Serena’s sister Venus in a tuneup for the Australian Open. Afterward, Ms. Andeescu called it “my awakening moment, maybe.”
That “maybe” was an important add-on from a Canadian tennis prodigy. We have been here before in recent years with several others. Between the Bouchards, Raonics and Shapovalovs, it’s getting harder to believe without first having seen.
But Ms. Andreescu followed up that breakout with a title in one of tennis’s mini-majors, Indian Wells. She plowed through top opposition. Now ranked in the 20s, she has yet to lose to a top-10 player this year.
Ms. Andreescu’s summer was sacrificed to injury. She missed the grass-court season entirely.
Tennis is fickle and memories are short. In just a few months, the hot new thing was largely forgotten. As she returned after her layoff just a few days ago, the most that seemed possible was a stretch of good health and one or two competitive outings.
From the outset, things did not look promising. Every time she appeared, Ms. Andreescu was layered in medical tape. At points, her lower half was wrapped up like a mummy. You could practically feel her pain.
But here was an entirely new sort of Canadian tennis star. Not a big hitter or someone capable of enormous court coverage, but a grinder and – this a new one for us – a closer.
When you look around for an athletic comparison point, one is forced to reach into the ranks of hockey or football players. Ms. Andreescu is the sort of competitor who finds a way to break you down, even if she herself is being broken in the process. However far you will go, she will go one step further.
She accomplished a few things on Sunday. She made a half-million bucks. She established herself as every tennis hipster’s pick to win the U.S. Open in three week’s time. And she nudged Ms. Williams a little closer to retirement.
If and when the woman Roger Federer has called the best player of all time, of either gender, leaves the game, Sunday will have been a significant signpost on that road. The Rogers Cup should not figure large in the 37-year-old’s hierarchy of tournaments. She’s won 23 majors. This trophy (she had already won this tournament three times) would probably have ended up in a hall closet.
But afterward, Ms. Williams looked broken. She’s had, by her own impossibly high standard, a year of disappointment. She was intermittently injured throughout. She melted down in the previous U.S. Open final and lost. She was a peripheral figure at the Australian and French Opens. She made a Wimbledon final last month, but was run off the court by Simona Halep.
Yet, the American had not seemed truly bereft until Sunday. It was left to a Canadian newcomer to talk her through the moment.
“Dude, I’ve watched you your whole career. You’re a … beast,” Ms. Andreescu said to her at courtside. “But injuries? I’ve been through so many. This sucks.”
Ms. Williams alternately laughed and cried at this extremely high-school pep talk. She gratefully accepted a long hug.
“She’s an old soul,” Ms. Williams said later.
In her own news conference, Ms. Andreescu used the same term to refer to herself. Her précis of the conversation: “After I gave my speech, she’s like, ‘That was very mature of you. I wouldn’t have given that when I was your age’.”
All those good vibes were lost in the moment. In a cruel touch tournament organizers should have avoided by letting her leave, Ms. Williams was forced to sit courtside forever waiting for the championship ceremony to begin. The camera lingered on her as she stared disconsolately at the ground. Ms. Williams has rarely looked so spent.
It must hurt even more to suffer this sort of loss against this sort of player. Ms. Andreescu is beginning to seem like Ms. Williams’s time-travelling doppelganger. They share a similar smothering power game. But Ms. Andreescu is most like a younger Ms. Williams in her mental approach. She lacks fear. She refuses to cave in matches she really should lose, but somehow wins.
For Ms. Williams, this must have been like looking in a mirror. This is what she used to be able to do, and no longer can. She is still a formidable player, but she is nothing close to what she once was. If the end once seemed near, it now feels imminent.
Who will replace Ms. Williams? You saw the likeliest candidate on Sunday. Ms. Andreescu is a woman on the cusp. She is now the tennis player “most likely to” – most likely to do a whole bunch of things.
But unlike other Canadians who’ve inherited that title before, she’s already doing them.
The Globe and Mail, August 11, 2019