Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 8, 2019

Tennis History Of The Unexpected Variety

In the end, as many tennis fans had hoped, the lead story of this year’s U.S. Open on the women’s side was about the triumph of a teenager. But in twists that only a few discerning fans saw coming, the triumph came at the price of a failed attempt at a record, and the name in the headlines was not that of a 15-year-old American, but rather a 19-year-old from Canada. Precocious American Coco Gauff showed that her surprising run at Wimbledon was no fluke by dispatching a pair of opponents at Flushing Meadows before falling to defending champion Naomi Osaka in the Open’s third round. But a week after Gauff was ushered out of the tournament, Bianca Andreescu, who one year ago was ranked 208th in the world, capped her meteoric ascent up the women’s rankings by derailing Serena Williams’s latest attempt to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles.

When the Open’s fortnight of play on the sprawling grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center began, few would have predicted that Williams, who was exactly one month shy of her 38th birthday when she dismantled Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-1 in just 59 minutes to win her first round match, would still be around for the Women’s Final twelve days later. That she seemed destined to fall well short this year was not for any lack of determination or desire, to be sure. Since returning at last year’s French Open from a maternity absence that was prolonged by life-threatening complications, Williams had reached the finals of a tennis major three times in six tries. But her last two tournaments prior to the Open both ended in injury-induced withdrawals, first in Toronto at the Rogers Cup and then in Cincinnati at the Western & Southern Open.

But if persistent back problems had lowered expectations for Williams before she arrived on Long Island, she showed from that opening match that she was fully healed and once more intent on matching one of the very few tennis records that does not already have her name attached to it – Court’s two dozen major victories. Each of those three recent trips to a final, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year and again in London in July, was a chance for Williams to tie Court. Each time she had been denied. Now, with her back healed and the New York crowd cheering, Williams, who was seeded 8th, rolled through a draw made easier by upsets to several higher seeds.

With each win bringing her one round closer to another shot at Court’s record, set at this same tournament more than four decades ago, the already strong support for Williams grew even more fervent. By Saturday’s final the full house at Arthur Ashe Stadium was loudly in her corner. Rooting interest aside, surely most of those in attendance believed that their ticket had bought them the opportunity to witness history as it was made, for Williams’s opponent was Andreescu, who was not only playing in her first Grand Slam final but also in her very first Open and just the fourth major tournament in which she had advanced to the main draw. If that inexperience was not enough to tilt the odds strongly in favor of Williams, Andreescu has also dealt with various injury issues since turning pro just two years ago, including her own back problems last year and a torn rotator cuff that led her to withdraw from the French Open and miss all of the grass court season.

Yet what close followers of tennis knew was that Andreescu’s advance from outside the top 200 in the world at this time last year to being seeded 15th for the Open had not happened by accident. She finished runner-up at an early season event in New Zealand, then won a Challenger Series tournament. Playing at Indian Wells on a wild card, she took home her first WTA victory, defeating Angelique Kerber in the final. She returned from her shoulder injury for the Rogers Cup on home soil, where she won through to the final and led 3-1 in the first set when Williams retired. When she walked on to the stadium court Saturday, she brought with her a 7-0 record against top-10 players this year and had not lost a completed match since March.

A confidence built by such a run was apparent from the start. Andreescu broke Williams in the opening game, aided by a pair of double faults. She then held her own serve throughout the first set, and broke Williams again in the ninth game to win 6-3. When Andreescu again won a break in the second game of set two, this time at love, the stunned crowd had resorted to imploring Williams to stage a comeback. The pleas seemed to work for at least one game as Williams broke back to make it 1-2, but then the teenager ran off three straight games to stand on the brink of victory.

That was when Williams started playing like the Serena of old instead of just an old Serena, even as the inevitable nerves at what she had nearly accomplished clearly swirled through Andreescu’s head. Williams won four games in a row to even the second set at 5-5, and the crowd that had largely been taken out of the match was again roaring. But just when it seemed that momentum had swung fully Williams’s way, Andreescu showed the determination of a veteran. She steadied herself and held for 6-5, then never trailed in the twelfth game. Williams saved one match point at 5-6, 30-40, just as she had saved one earlier in the set on the way to staging her comeback. But her first serve missed on the next point, and Andreescu pounced on the second serve, rocketing a forehand return down the line that Williams just barely touched.

With that a tennis record was tied, just not the expected one. By winning the title at just her fourth Grand Slam event, Andreescu matched Monica Seles for winning her first major in the fewest appearances. She also became the first teenager to win the U.S. Open since Sharapova in 2006, and the first player to capture the title in her main draw premiere.

With Andreescu’s victory, along with the emergence of Gauff and other promising young women like Taylor Townsend, Caty McNally, and of course Osaka, who is just twenty-one, the women’s game may finally be seeing generational change. If that’s so Serena may never match that old, old record. But should that prove to be true, it will in part be because as the dominant player of her generation, she has served as a role model and an inspiration to the very players who now stand in her way.

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