Before the semi-final match between Bianca Andreescu and Belinda Bencic, there was almost as much discussion about their games as there was about their physical similarities. The 22-year-old Bencic has been on the tour a lot longer than the 19-year-old Andreescu, but many casual fans had trouble telling them apart because of how alike their facial features are.
By the end of the match though, nobody had trouble differentiating between the steady-hitting Bencic and the fiery ball of energy that was Andreescu. The noise inside Arthur Ashe stadium peaked at the same time as Andreescu's tennis did, putting a dramatic finishing touch to the women's semifinals.
The contest had seemed too close to call from the outset, and it would likely have gone the full distance if not for the explosive surge in the Canadian's play towards the end. As it was, the 7-6(3), 7-5 decision in Andreescu's favor took as long as two hours and 12 minutes; a three-setter might have been too much for our nerves to handle.
There were quite a few nerves on display at the start of the match as neither woman could get enough strong returns in play. Bencic went the entire first set without facing a break point, but anyone who's followed her career will tell you that she isn't that good a server. It was primarily Andreescu's miscued returns that helped her opponent hold so comfortably.
The Swiss fared a little better with her own returns, but she repeatedly failed to make the crucial ones. Andreescu faced as many as six break points in that first set — one of which was a set point — and she saved all of them by either coming up with a big serve + forehand combination or eliciting a return error from Bencic.
But aside from the returns, pretty much everything else the two women did made for immensely compelling viewing.
Andreescu has the better serve and forehand, Bencic has the better return and backhand, and they are both about equally good with their touch play. All these things came together on the night to form a heady mix of fast-paced tennis that gave us a tingling sense of joy about the future of the sport.
Neither Bencic nor Andreescu was willing to cede any ground at the baseline, so the rallies featured almost as many half-volleys as full-blooded cuts. Andreescu was the more aggressive player overall and she took bigger risks by aiming closer to the lines, but Bencic's on-the-rise redirection was thrilling in its own right.
The two women's insistence on trying to gain the ascendancy from whatever position they were in resulted in some comically unbalanced shots that somehow still ended up as winners.
The Canadian would find a return land smack at her feet, but instead of moving out of the way she would simply bend her knees, guide the ball into the open court, and nail the winner. Bencic on her part would frequently be pushed wide on her backhand side by a sharp angle from Andreescu, but instead of sending a safe slice back she would try to go over the highest part of the net for a down-the-line bullet.
Andreescu's up-and-down, anything-goes style had somehow turned contagious; in this match, there was a distinct sense of unpredictability on both sides of the net.
Sure, the match was not perfect — Andreescu made as many as 38 unforced errors, while Bencic committed 32. But with its frenetic pace, clever change-ups and quick hand skills, it gave us a glimpse of the possibilities that the next generation of women's tennis offers.
For Bencic to maximize her personal possibilities though, she'd have to do something to fix her serve. After being so efficient on that shot all through the first set, she double faulted to open the tiebreaker and never managed to catch up. And in the second set, after going up a double break without having faced a single break point, she made two double faults and promptly got broken.
Still, the final act of the night had little to do with Bencic's serving woes, and everything to do with Andreescu's patented ability to raise her game on command.
The Swiss managed to break again for a 5-2 lead, and the set seemed in her pocket. But when she stepped up to serve it out, she found herself face-to-face with an opponent who looked like she had just been released from a cage.
Andreescu had looked fatigued and almost disinterested for much of the second set, which gave us the impression she was saving herself for the decider. But just when all seemed lost, her competitive instincts kicked in. She increased the decibel of her grunts, started swinging harder on her returns, and telegraphed an unmistakable message that she wasn't ready to pack it in yet.
Bencic didn't do much wrong in those last few electric games, and she still lost all of them. That's because Andreescu was suddenly all fire and brimstone, in every aspect of the game. She slammed winners out of nowhere, thundered down nonreturnable serves at will, and even scrambled into the corners to retrieve Bencic's occasional forceful shots.
Andreescu went from looking like a player ready to try her luck in the next set, to a player who didn't believe she could ever lose a set. She absorbed all the energy from the packed Arthur Ashe stadium — which cheered raucously for her all through the match — and channeled it into her play. At the same time, Bencic seemed to be visibly deflating as the hopelessness of the situation dawned on her: there was just no getting past Andreescu on this day.
Over the last eight months the Canadian teen has repeatedly shown us the seemingly endless facets of her game, but at the US Open she is showing us her different mental gears too. Her fighting qualities are evident from her three-set record: she has won the last 11 matches that have gone to a decider. But against Bencic she didn't let it get that far, as she regained her focus before the match went into a shootout. In other words, she is making progress even in the areas that don't exactly need fixing.
In the final on Saturday, Andreescu faces the mother of all challenges, as Serena Williams lies in wait. Whether she wins that match or not, we know she will put on a show — filled with the cute little variations inherent in her shot-making style and the fierce grunts that accompany her survival instincts.
At 19, Andreescu doesn't seem to know any other way to play. And we are all thankful for that.
Updated Date: Sep 06, 2019 12:09:46 IST