Andreescu fearless in pursuit of Canadian tennis’ crowning achievement

Caroline Cameron spoke one-on-one with Bianca Andreescu after her historic U.S. Open victory, making her the first Canadian to win a grand slam singles title.

NEW YORK — Bianca Andreescu sat in her court-side seat and she looked up at a big screen in Arthur Ashe Stadium and she watched highlights of what she’d just done. She watched as she hammered her final winner down the line and then dropped her racquet and put her hands over her mouth. She watched as she kissed the court and then fell onto it, rolling on her back and spreading out her arms and legs and lying there with her eyes shut.

Andreescu had tears in her eyes and she laughed, watching all this. As fans cheered, she shook her head and said: “Thank you.”

What a fearless performance. What an incredible moment. What a way to make history. The 19-year-old has won Canada’s first-ever Grand Slam singles title, at last.

On Saturday, in front of 23,000 people, most of whom were cheering for Serena Williams, Andreescu earned a straight-sets win to capture the U.S. Open in what is without a doubt the greatest moment in this country’s tennis history. It’s up there with the greatest individual performances in Canadian sports, period.

And think about where Andreescu was nine months ago: Ranked 152nd in the world and playing in qualifiers. Now she’s No. 5 in the world and her name is etched on the U.S. Open trophy. As her former coach, Andre Labelle put it, “It’s a fairy-tale.”

It is. And before Andreescu got her hands on that silver trophy — “which side is the front?” she asked — and before she posed for photos while red and silver and blue confetti flew, closing her eyes while she kissed the trophy and smiled without showing her teeth, she climbed into the stands to visit her family and her team. She hugged everyone she knew. “I did it!” she said, with tears in her eyes. When she got to her parents, she put one under each arm and Andreescu said, “I love you.” Maria and Nicu Andreescu said “I love you” right back.

To live this moment is something Andreescu could not put into words without tearing up, about an hour after her win. “It’s so crazy, man. I’ve been…” she said, eyes watering. “Sorry. I’ve been dreaming of this moment for the longest time.”

Andreescu beat Williams, 6-3, 7-5, in an hour and 40 minutes. She beat the 37-year-old crowd favourite, the mother looking for her record-tying 24th Grand Slam title and her seventh U.S. Open title two decades after she won her first. Williams wasn’t at all happy with her play. “I honestly don’t think Serena showed up,” she said.

But did Williams ever fight to show up at the end. She struggled mightily with her serve for most of the match, and she was down 1-5 in the second set and even faced championship point before she went on an absolute tear, winning four straight games to get back on serve. And if Arthur Ashe Stadium had its roof on, the thing might’ve blown clean off. Williams sat in her chair as the fans stood and cheered and nearly shook this building, and she looked around and smiled.

“I was just thinking, honestly at that point, ‘Wow, this is terrible.’ Like, you got to play better, I have to do better,” Williams said. “I just couldn’t go down like that so I just wanted to play a little bit better.”

Andreescu, on the other hand, plugged her ears when the crowd responded for Williams, and she thought to herself: “Put the goddamn ball inside the court and just breathe.” That’s what made the match so hard to close out, she said — the support for the woman 18 years her senior. “I know you guys wanted Serena to win, so I’m so sorry,” Andreescu told the crowd, oh-so-Canadian-like. “And obviously it was expected for Serena to fight back — she’s done that so many times in the past.”

Andreescu said she tried to block everything out while trying to close out the match, though it wasn’t easy. She made more than a few unforced errors, and even bounced her racquet on the ground in frustration while Williams went on her attempted comeback run. But it was Andreescu who got back on serve and then broke Williams one final time to close out the match. “I’m just glad with how I managed, really,” Andreescu said.

So, too, are her parents. “Amazing, amazing, amazing, she blew my mind,” Maria Andreescu said, grinning, while holding the family’s now-famous dog, Coco. “But she was tough, so she deserved to be here, definitely.”

Had you watched Maria during the match, you would not know that her mind was blown. She kept a straight face, and calmly clapped for most of the match, her eyes hidden behind giant sunglasses. “It’s just a face,” she said, laughing. “There is a lot happening in there, I promise.”

The same was no doubt true of her daughter, who walked onto the court and said she would try to treat this like “just any other match,” though it was far from it. “I was feeling many, many things before the match, more than any other match,” Andreescu said afterwards. “I just tried to breathe as much as I could from the moment I woke up until the match.”

Then Andreescu went out and won in her debut in the main draw at the U.S. Open, the punctuation on a season that has featured a vertical ascent in the world rankings. But while her climb has been fast, there were many signs that this young woman would one day get here — and not just the literal poster in her bedroom, where she wrote “Future No. 1.”

Peter Liu noticed one of those signs when Andreescu was seven. He coached her for one year at the Ontario Racquet Club in Mississauga, and though he didn’t see anything about her game that made her technically superior to other kids her age, there was this: “She cried a lot,” he said, and not the tears of joy we saw on Saturday. If Andreescu hit a bunch of shots in a row into the net during practice, the tears flowed. “She set a high standard for herself at such a young age. That’s very unusual,” said Liu. “It was her determination that made her stand out.” He called her “The little girl with the big dream.”

Labelle, who got a big hug from Andreescu after the win, noticed a sign that she was bound for greatness more recently. Andreescu was 17, with two stress fractures in her foot. She still wanted to practice, so he took the back off a business-style chair — no wheels on this seat — and he plunked it down on the court. Andreescu sat in that chair and he fed her ball after ball after ball for an hour every day, moving the chair to different areas of the court periodically so she could volley and practice overhead smashes and groundstrokes. “She just loved it,” Labelle said. This went on for two and a half months.

“Those are the moments, for me, that’s why she’s going to be world No. 1. It’s total commitment,” Labelle said. “Those moments are what got her to this moment.”

And what a moment it was. What a showcase these two women put on. A lot is made of their age and experience difference, but the similarities between the two are many. As Williams put it: “We both are really intense … super intense with what we do.” They’re both fierce and powerful as hell. They both have heart tattoos and bring their dogs (Chip and Coco) to big matches. They both pump their fists and yell when things are going right.

And here in New York, Williams is absolutely revered. Fans wear plastic diamond-studded “Serena” head bands. When she arrived on the court before this final, they were all on their feet, yelling things like “Go Queen!” and “Sereeeeena!” Williams literally skipped to the baseline to open warm-ups. And then she hammered an ace to open this match.

But Andreescu took control early, and largely because of Williams’ unforced errors. She had five in the opening game alone, and double-faulted on game point. She also double-faulted to close out the first set. “I love Bianca,” Williams said when it was all over. “I think she’s a great girl. But I think this was the worst match I’ve played all tournament.”

It’s in part because Andreescu didn’t let up, attacking relentlessly. “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 bit by it.”

Yes, that’s a 19-year-old, pointing out that Serena Williams — the greatest ever — might’ve been a little bit intimidated by her play. And, hey, Andreescu’s confidence is well-founded. She is now undefeated, 8-0, against top-10 players. Her last loss came on March 2.

No doubt the 19 minutes she played against Williams in the Rogers Cup Final, before Williams retired due to injury, helped Andreescu Saturday in New York. “She got to play four games with Serena,” says Labelle, her former coach. “You get nervous playing a legend. I think she broke the ice in Toronto.”

If any ice was left that came with playing one of her idols, Andreescu crushed it to bits in New York.

And, really, what a place to do it, to earn that first full match win against Williams. Have a seat in Arthur Ashe Stadium and it only underscores what an incredible achievement it is to make the U.S. Open final here, to play in front of a packed house in the largest tennis stadium in the world, and for a Grand Slam title. The duchess Meghan Markle even made the trip.

The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center feels like winning and like history. Walk in the south gate and you’ll pass the Court of Champions, where Serena Williams’ name is written six times, among every champion in U.S. Open history — a list that will soon include Bianca Andreescu.

After she’d won it, she was interviewed outside the main gates of the stadium, near that Court of Champions she’ll soon join. Fans sang ‘O Canada.’ They chanted “She the North!” right here, in New York City.

Saturday in New York was absolutely extraordinary. It was Andreescu’s first-ever Grand Slam final, and she’s just getting started.

“I just have to say thank you,” Andreescu said, smiling. “And let’s keep going.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.