Elizabeth Weil noted, “Serena’s talent is so singular that it feels as if it dropped whole from the heavens, a dense, crystalline meteorite of athletic prowess and drive.”
We would add that her serve is the most powerful women’s shot of all time. Her groundies are cannonballs – boom and blast. Along with ruffian Rafa, she’s the toughest fighter in the game. Most of all, Serena’s Serena. She transcends.
Still, of late, we’ve heard a troubling sound. It’s her 37-year-old clock – “tick, tock.” Giving birth transformed her body. Her focus has shifted. Her quickness has diminished. Her schedule has been light, her match toughness was suspect.
Six times she’s tried to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slams. Three times she was smacked in anti-climatic shortfalls at Grand Slam finals. She hadn’t won a single tourney as a mother. And then there was that troubling memory of last year’s “I’m not a cheat!” debacle, a dysfunctional descent that was a tennis trauma like no other.
Fortunately, the controversial ump Carlos Ramos was nowhere in sight. The painful memories were fading, distant flickers in our rear-view mirror. A princess had flown in from London, Ashe Stadium was again packed, and Serena was dialed in.
It was prime time, show time, her time – Serena time. This was her moment, her shot at redemption. A win today and history would be hers.
But there was a problem. A Canadian kid, Bianca Andreescu, is a force of nature. She’s just 19. She doesn’t stir giddy emotions like Coco Gauff. She just wins and was 7-0 against top ten players. Never mind that last year at the Open she was just another 18-year-old dreamer who fell in the first round of qualifying. Then again, this kid’s something else. She has size, quickness, athleticism, guts and is a born competitor.
A few years ago she wrote herself an imaginary winner’s check from the US Open. The first thing she does every day is quietly reflect for 15 minutes using a form of meditation called Creative Visualization. But we doubt she could have visualized a breakout year like this. Her initials are “BA”, but she’s had one heck of a PhD year. In Auckland, she reached the final of the year’s first tourney. A wildcard at Indian Wells, she beat five seeds and became the youngest winner since – who else? Serena – in ’99. Then she was hurt, but came back to beat Serena in her home tourney, the Roger’s Cup.
Indian Wells and Toronto are huge wins, but New York, baby, it’s the Big Apple. After her semifinal presser, she walked down the hall taking a selfie video. “I’m into the US Open final on the biggest court in the world, playing Serena!”
From the outset of the Open, one thing was clear, if anyone could derail Serena, it would be Andreescu. Her body is powerful – a kind of combination of Amelie Mauresmo and Kim Clijsters. Her feet are fleet. She dashes to the corners with ease and bends low like Agnieszka Radwanska. She takes the ball early, her errors are rare. She anticipates like a futures analyst. Yes, she shouts “C’mon!” and gets in your face. Angie Kerber told her that she was “the biggest drama queen.”
Then again, like Novak Djokovic, she meditates and visualizes. She said, “This wasn’t the only time I visualized playing in the finals, actually against Serena. It’s so crazy, man.” And then she teared up. “I’ve been dreaming of this moment for the longest time. After I won the Orange Bowl…I really believed that I could be at this stage. Since then, honestly, I’ve been visualizing it almost every single day…I guess those visualizations are really working.”
What was working today was a young athletic phenom who broke the imposing Williams in her very first service game. Here was a match-tough kid with an iron will, who shrugged off her failure to win five break points in a mammoth sixth game of the first set. Calling Serena and Bianca fighters is too soft a word, said Chris Evert. They are warriors. Not surprisingly, the kid with fire in her belly hit a 103 mph ace when fending off break point. Hitting out, showing no deference to Superwoman, the brash and fearless Andreescu claimed the first set 6-3, on yet another deflating Williams double fault.
Today everything was backward for Serena. She was hoping to win slam No. 24, but she lost the first set in 42 minutes. Her serve is normally such a weapon. But today she made only 44% of her first serves and hit eight untimely double faults.
Serena again lost her serve early in the second set, but promptly broke back. The stadium roared. “Match-on!” thought the hopeful crowd. But Andreescu broke right back and sprinted to a 5-1 lead. Williams’ shoulders dipped and she berated herself. This, she would say, was the worst match she’d played in an Open. “Okay, Serena, you didn’t miss a serve the whole tourney, but you haven’t hit a first serve in today.” Two points from the match, Serena pounded a winner to end a scramble point. But everything was scrambled. The Canadian soon had match point.
Then. amazingly, the woman whose brand is to shock and awe did what she’s long done. She roared back. Ashe Stadium was howling. Andreescu covered her ears. She couldn’t think and she couldn’t return serve. Her groundies drifted. She began to melt. Superwoman sprinted back, winning four straight games to even the second set at 5-5. Now, certainly, Bianca would crumble. The Canadian told herself, “Put the goddamn ball inside the court and just breathe.”
Amidst the roars the Canadian somehow managed to stabilize her wobbly ship. Her backers were hardly shocked. Her focus is uncanny and she embraces the fight.
Boxer Mike Tyson used to love to brawl. Bianca soars amidst the battle. It is her rare, unflinching fighting spirit that has amazed us most – this young player whom her mother calls “an old soul.”
Speaking of old souls, a Greek philosopher named Aristotle once claimed, “Courage is the first of human virtues, because it makes all others possible.”
So Andreescu steadied her game, held serve to go up 6-5 and then, on her third championship point, blasted Serena’s timid 74 mph second serve to win the Open in convincing fashion 6-3, 7-5..
As Simona Halep had done in July, a woman of Romanian heritage captured a Slam. Like Roger Federer at Wimbledon, an iconic champion broke hearts. Again in New York’s massive tennis stadium there were roars as Serena fell.
But this year there was no turmoil, no tears of angst. Yes, Bianca fell to the court in disbelief. This first Canadian to ever win a Slam and the first player born in the 2000s to win a major said, “This is crazy. This is just a dream.” After all, rarely has tennis seen such a rise. The unknown teen who lost last year in qualifying and began the year at No. 107 had crafted a WTA rise like few others.
The thoughtful seeker who is into self-help books helped herself to $3.8 million. Last year’s failed qualifier was this year’s champ. The nineteen-year-old “old soul” was our new champion and No. 5 in the world. Superwoman Serena’s painful pursuit of 24 was again put on pause. New York was hoping for history. Instead, in a final that will long be remembered, a new powerful meteorite brightened our galaxy. For this was the day “She the North” burst forth.
Also reporting Douglas Hochmuth