[Live updates from the U.S. Open women’s final match, where Serena Williams is facing Bianca Andreescu]
Serena Williams was 17 when she won her first Grand Slam singles title in 1999 at the United States Open.
On Saturday, in the same stadium, she will try to prevent another fast-rising teenager — 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu — from winning her first major and thwarting Williams’s latest attempt to acquire a record-tying 24th.
Not a bad story line, but what makes it better is that the 15th-seeded Andreescu, despite her inexperience at this pressurized level of a Grand Slam tournament, has the weapons, maturity and moxie to potentially make this final a terrific match.
“She’s a great player,” Williams said. “She mixes things up. You never know what is going to come from her. She serves well, moves well, has a ton of power. She’s very exciting to watch. It’s good. I think it’s great for women’s tennis.”
Williams was not Andreescu’s primary tennis role model when she was growing up in the suburbs of Toronto. She was drawn to Kim Clijsters, the Belgian star whose diverse and deeply athletic game is like her own. Later, her focus shifted to Simona Halep, who, like Andreescu’s parents, is Romanian.
But Andreescu, who is 7-0 against top 10 players, has been observing Williams closely from afar and from within.
She has been using visualization as a tool since she was 13, and she said on Friday that when she imagined playing a U.S. Open final, the two women she imagined facing were Halep and Williams.
After winning the prestigious Orange Bowl junior title at age 15, she said, she wrote herself a check for the amount that went to the U.S. Open winner that year.
She still has the check. “Ever since this moment, I just kept visualizing that,” she said. “If that can happen on Saturday, then that would be pretty cool.”
Tennis has a habit of shrinking the concept of a generation: Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal was once viewed as the old guard versus the new, although they are less than five years apart in age.
But this U.S. Open women’s final will be an intergenerational duel by any definition.
Williams will turn 38 this month. Andreescu turned 19 in June and had not yet been born when Williams stormed through the singles draw in New York in 1999.
This will be the biggest age gap in a women’s Grand Slam singles final in the Open era, which began in 1968. The gap is more than a year wider than the 17 years 45 days that separated Martina Navratilova from the teenage phenom Monica Seles in the 1991 U.S. Open final, won by Seles. Just a year ago, there was a 16-year gap as Williams lost to 20-year-old Naomi Osaka in an Open final.
Williams, the oldest women’s Grand Slam singles finalist in the Open era, has clearly redefined what constitutes a tennis grande dame with her late-career success. Coming back after giving birth to a daughter in 2017, she has reached four of the last six major singles finals in her so-far unsuccessful quest to match Margaret Court’s total of 24 titles.
But Saturday’s matchup between Williams and Andreescu is not just intriguing on a historical or statistical level.
“She’s got the champion’s attitude,” Navratilova said of Andreescu after watching her scrap and rally in both sets to defeat Belinda Bencic 7-6 (3), 7-5 in the semifinals on Thursday.
Does she have the nerve to face Williams in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the biggest Grand Slam showcase in the sport?
“She’s already shown it, and the pressure is off,” Navratilova said. “She’s playing Serena Williams, so Serena’s got a bigger game, obviously. But Bianca’s got heart, and she’s a competitor. I think she’ll match the intensity of Serena. I just don’t know if she can match her game.”
For now, Andreescu is one of several remarkable youngsters experiencing great success.
Marketa Vondrousova, a crafty 19-year-old lefthander from the Czech Republic, reached the final of this year’s French Open. Also at that tournament: Amanda Anisimova, a 17-year-old American, narrowly lost in the semifinals to the eventual champion, Ashleigh Barty.
Osaka, still No. 1 in the rankings and winner of last year’s U.S. Open and this year’s Australian Open, is only 21.
“It’s just always changing,” said Bencic, just 22 herself.
The future of women’s tennis looks bright and delightfully uncertain. Still, Andreescu is, at this early stage, in a category apart, both for the size of her tennis toolbox and the speed of her ascent. This is only her fourth Grand Slam tournament.
A year ago, she lost in the first round of U.S. Open qualifying on an outside court to Olga Danilovic, a promising teenager from Serbia who actually drew a bigger crowd than Andreescu.
“I wasn’t going through a good period in my life at that point,” Andreescu said. “I was having problems with some relationships in my life, with my body and even my mind, too.”
But with the help of her coach, Sylvain Bruneau, and a strong support team, she has taken flight in 2019. She broke out in earnest by winning the BNP Paribas Open, a top-tier tour event in Indian Wells, Calif., in March.
A rotator cuff injury stopped her rise for a few months after that, but she regained momentum to become the first Canadian woman to win the Rogers Cup in Canada since 1969, defeating Williams in the final last month in Toronto after Williams retired with a back injury after four games.
Despite the age and experience gaps, Andreescu felt comfortable enough to approach an emotional Williams in her chair and offer support.
“I’ve watched you your whole career. You’re a beast,” Andreescu told Williams, prefacing the word beast with a profanity. It was an unvarnished, spontaneous and touching moment, one that had Williams chuckling amid the tears.
Now they will meet again with a much more significant trophy at stake, and with Williams in apparently fine health after dropping just one set in six matches. She is moving better than in any tournament in the last two seasons, which her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, believes could make the difference on Saturday.
“She knows she’s ready,” he said.
No. 24 has been Williams’s goal and, to a large degree, her self-imposed burden.
With Court’s mark in reach, she has gone 0-3 in major finals since her return to the sport last year.
The pressure was never more evident than against Osaka at the U.S. Open last year when Williams received multiple code-of-conduct penalties, the first one after the chair umpire Carlos Ramos spotted Mouratoglou making hand signals from the stands. Williams angrily denied being coached or seeing any signals.
Mouratoglou, while acknowledging that he did try to coach Williams, continued to defend her.
“I can tell you that you don’t have even the beginning of the beginning of an idea of the pressure that Serena was feeling at the U.S. Open last year,” he said in a recent interview. “You cannot imagine it, and of course that damages your capacity to keep your cool in moments that are extreme like that and a moment when she felt her personal integrity was being attacked unfairly.”
One year later, there is certainly blame to be shared, including too many gray areas and inconsistencies in the implementation of the sport’s rules on coaching.
What is undeniable is that one year later, Williams has still not won No. 24 and is once again facing a tremendously talented youngster on the rise who, like Osaka, won her first tour title in Indian Wells on her way to a U.S. Open final.
The parallels are startling, and Saturday’s match so very intriguing.
David Waldstein contributed reporting.