Sports

Bianca Andreescu Is Here

And the Canadian tennis phenom is not going anywhere.

Bianca Andreescu
Bianca Andreescu of Canada celebrates victory against Belinda Bencic of Switzerland during the U.S. Open at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on Thursday.
Lev Radin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Bianca Andreescu is 19 years old and plays with the savvy of someone twice her age. As it happens, her opponent in Saturday’s U.S. Open final, Serena Williams, is almost 38. A handful of numbers are enough to tell you that the Canadian Andreescu is a monstrously tough opponent. Ranked outside the top 100 at the beginning of the year, she has won two top-tier tournaments (Indian Wells and Toronto), is 7–0 this season against top 10 players, and is undefeated in matches she’s played to completion since early March. (She retired from one match due to injury and was also forced to withdraw from the French Open.) But if you really want to understand why Andreescu is such a star, look no further than her confounding, extraordinary straight-set win against Belinda Bencic in Thursday night’s semifinal.

Bencic and Andreescu seem destined to have a long rivalry. Like dramatic foils in a classic drama, they resemble and oppose each other in equal measure. Bencic, who is three years older and 2 inches taller, is a former phenom herself, previously having reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals when she was 17. The two women, particularly when they’re decked out in similar Nike kits, look like sisters, their faces defined by sharp eyebrows and strong noses. They also share a common forebear: Swiss legend Martina Hingis. Andreescu takes Hingis’ variety and creativity, while the Swiss Bencic, who trained with Hingis’ mother as a junior, takes after her anticipation and footwork. Both add to this a power that Hingis could only dream of.

It’s that power that you notice first when you watch Andreescu play, but she’s far more than a simple offensive baseliner. Many female tennis players hit a relatively flat ball, sacrificing spin for pace. Andreescu, like Serena Williams, hits her basic ground strokes with a high level of topspin, adding accuracy to her shots and causing the ball to bounce higher, making it harder for her opponents to hit through. The high bounce helps draw a short ball, which Andreescu can then demolish. This exact game plan, deployed against Roger Federer’s backhand, allowed Rafael Nadal to dominate their rivalry for years.

Andreescu also has surprising variety in her game. She hits plenty of slice backhands and squash shot forehands, can toss in a drop shot when necessary, and puts away winners from all over the court. Most power players don’t bother to develop this kind of versatility. Just look at Maria Sharapova in her prime—if you can overwhelm the opponent, what’s the point in playing cat-and-mouse? But Andreescu has many ways to win a point, which is perhaps why she wins so many of them. When her A-game breaks down, as it did multiple times on Thursday, she can move on to games B, C, and D.

Bencic, on the other hand, is not the fastest player on tour, nor does she hit the hardest. Her superpower is her skill at anticipation, which is so finely tuned that you might wonder if her coach is Charles Xavier (it’s actually her dad). She takes the ball on the rise, robbing her opponents of precious time and using their pace against them. She’s also very gifted at redirecting the ball, returning crosscourt shots down the line and vice versa.

Bencic’s game is tailor-made to take a player like Andreescu apart, and for most of both sets on Thursday, that’s what she did. Hitting Andreescu’s heavy topspin shots on the rise neutralized the effectiveness of their bounce, and Bencic’s ability to redirect left her opponent confounded. Yet Andreescu, who for the balance of both sets seemed completely overmatched, found a way to win them. In the first, she won by hanging on, fighting off break point after break point, and then dominating the tiebreak when Bencic got tight. But Bencic returned to storm the second set, breaking Andreescu twice and quickly getting up 5–2.

For those first seven games of the second set, Andreescu looked—and played—tired from the baseline. When the camera cut to her, she was often exhaling hard through her mouth. Drenched with sweat, she hit unforced error after unforced error, and moved between points as if someone had strapped weights to her legs. But Bencic again tightened up, this time when serving for the set. Her acute tennis brain seemed to short-circuit, particularly at net. Andreescu, meanwhile, crashed through the opening Bencic left open, using spectacular winners to shorten points whenever she could and, when she couldn’t, mixing it up with gutsy defense and low-bouncing slices. From 5–2 up, Bencic never won another game. Andreescu took the semifinal 7–6, 7–5.

If you’d never seen Andreescu play before, you might be tempted to think that Bencic’s collapse was the story here: She had both sets in her hands, and she blew them. But this is what Bianca Andreescu does. Just like Nadal, she refuses to capitulate when other players would. She also knows how to problem-solve when facing a talented opponent: She figured out Bencic’s play style, and she adapted her own game to break it apart. Andreescu did the same thing against Taylor Townsend, another former child prodigy whose anachronistic and beautiful serve-and-volley play style confounded the fourth-ranked Simona Halep. Against Townsend, Andreescu lost the second set, and vented enough frustration on her racket that she received a code of conduct warning. An unsophisticated power player would, at this moment, try to hit the ball harder, and deeper, taking calculated risks to rip winners. Andreescu did the opposite. Her power strokes weren’t getting the job done, so she slowed down the pace of play, hitting high-looping topspin lobs and dagger-sharp slices, neither of which Townsend could answer effectively. Andreescu won the deciding set 6–2, and she did it by playing smarter, not harder.

Usually, it takes a few matches against an opponent to figure out how to play them, and it takes a few high-profile losses to learn how to keep cool under pressure. Andreescu knows how to do both within the matches themselves, a trait that separates her from most of her tennis peers. In this long era of the GOATs, godlike play from Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Williams is easy to contrast with that of players on the next level down who’ve so often failed to make good on their promise.

For players living in the shadow of the Big 3 and Serena, the problem is less a deficit of ability than a lack of physical fitness or creativity or, most often, mental fortitude. Andreescu has all of these in spades, and the stats bear this out. Against Bencic, she saved 77 percent of break points and won 43 percent of receiving points. Her percentages were comparable against Townsend, and, coming into the U.S. Open, she was ranked fourth on tour in return points won (47.2 percent), fifth in return games won (42.9 percent), and saved break points 60.7 percent of the time.

None of this means she’s the favorite to win on Saturday. Beating the greatest tennis player of all time when she’s in form is a tall order for anyone. And there are challenges ahead, beyond this tournament. Andreescu is injury-prone—she’s missed significant time due to a back injury and a right shoulder injury—and has yet to prove herself on clay and grass. Yet, by combining variety with toughness and creativity, it’s all but guaranteed that the proof will come. The speed and toughness of her mind, combined with the power and variety of her game, all but guarantee that Andreescu will be hoisting some hefty serving dishes in the future.