Bianca Andreescu had often visualized this day. She had pictured herself facing Serena Williams in the final of the U.S. Open and four years ago she wrote herself a check for the money the winner would receive, a sum she scratched out and updated yearly.
After it unfolded Saturday as the 19-year-old Canadian pictured, when she dominated the first set and held off a valiant comeback by Williams to finish a 6-3, 7-5 victory and earn a check for $3.85 million, Andreescu was overcome by tears. “Sorry,” she said during a news conference, a typically polite Canadian. No apologies needed for her emotion or for a performance that confirmed the imminent end of Williams’ reign as the sport’s best player.
Williams, who is one Grand Slam singles title away from tying Margaret Court’s record of 24, has played four Slam finals since she returned to competition after the birth of her daughter. She has not won a set in any of them. With her 38th birthday coming in a few weeks and Andreescu owning the game and temperament to find consistent success, there’s more reason to doubt Williams will catch Court. “I’m like, so close, so close, so close,” Williams said, “yet so far away.”
Williams came to New York fitter than she was a year ago when she lost an acrimonious final to Naomi Osaka. In addition, Williams spent three fewer hours on the court than Andreescu had spent to reach the final. The outcome was the same: Williams lost to an upstart who is Canada’s first Grand Slam singles champion, an opponent who hadn’t yet been born when Williams won the first of her six U.S. Open titles in 1999.
Williams’ serve is usually one of her biggest assets, but Saturday she double-faulted eight times and got only 44% of her first serves in play. “I believe I could have played better. I believe I could have done more. I believe I could have just been more Serena today,” Williams said. “I honestly don’t think Serena showed up. I have to kind of figure out how to get her to show up in Grand Slam finals.”
It might not have made much difference if the Serena she still believes herself to be had shown up Saturday. Andreescu, the daughter of Romanian immigrants who put her in Tennis Canada’s development program when she was young, was that good all over the court. Andreescu, who lost in the qualifying round here last year and didn’t make it to the main draw, played as if she had been here many times. In her first Grand Slam final she was in control most of the way, occasionally pumping herself up with shouts of, “Come on!” to combat the crowd’s vocal support of Williams.
Andreescu apologized to fans for defeating their favorite but again, no apology needed. “The game plan right from the start was to make her work for every ball, to get as many returns in the court as possible,” Andreescu said. “I think she was intimidated a little by it.”
Andreescu, who turned her potential into a breakthrough when she won at Indian Wells in March, gave notice how tough she would be Saturday when she broke Williams’ serve in the first game of the first set, benefiting when Williams double-faulted twice. Each held serve easily until the seventh game. Andreescu had five break points on Williams’ serve, each leading the crowd to shout encouragement to Williams. After the game went to deuce five times, Andreescu hit a backhand into the net to give Williams the advantage and Williams won the game with a forehand, cutting Andreescu’s lead to 4-3.
Any thought that Andreescu might have been discouraged was dispelled when she opened the next game with an ace and held for 5-3. She won the set on her first opportunity, when Williams double-faulted.
Andreescu held to open the second set and broke Williams’ serve for a 2-0 lead. Williams battled back in the next game and gained four break points before she could put the game away and cut Andreescu’s lead to 2-1. Andreescu broke back for 3-1, held for 4-1, and broke again for 5-1. Williams, relying on pride, saved a championship point and clawed back to 5-5. “I just couldn’t go down like that, so I just wanted to play a little bit better,” Williams said.
Andreescu held for 6-5 and clinched the victory with a forehand winner. “It definitely wasn’t easy, especially when she started coming back in the second set. I mean, it was expected. She’s a champion. That’s what champions do,” Andreescu said. “She’s done that many, many times throughout her career. But I just tried to stay as composed as I could. It’s hard to block everything out, but I think I did a pretty good job at that.”
Williams embraced her at the net, and Andreescu said Williams was kind to her in the locker room too. Still, it seems Williams hasn’t accepted that her era is ending and her chances of tying Court are dim. “I love Bianca. I think she’s a great girl,” Williams said, “but I think this was the worst match I’ve played all tournament.”
Andreescu received congratulations from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Steve Nash, and the Toronto Raptors, who tweeted a photo of their NBA championship trophy alongside a jersey with her name on it. She said she hasn’t written herself a check for the winner’s payout at the Australian or French Open or Wimbledon, but she should consider doing that soon. Anyone who watched her Saturday can easily visualize her holding up those trophies too.