Canadian star Andreescu ready to face idol Halep in WTA Finals debut

Bianca Andreescu, of Canada, reacts after defeating Belinda Bencic, of Switzerland, during the semifinals of the U.S. Open. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Bianca Andreescu has grown accustomed to competing against players she grew up idolizing after facing — and beating — so many of them during her breakout season on the WTA Tour this year.

That practice should come in handy on Monday, when the Canadian teenager takes on former world No. 1 Simona Halep of Romania for the first time at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China.

Andreescu, herself of Romanian descent, has been paying close attention to and admiring Halep’s game for years. Now she can’t wait to see how she measures up to it.

"I was super pumped," Andreescu said of her reaction to finding out her first opponent. "I’ve been going up against a lot of players I used to grow up watching and idolizing so I don’t think I’ll have a problem with that.

"I think we’re going to put on a good match. I’ve always wanted to play her so I think it’s going to be fun."

The 19-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., is the youngest player in the field at the WTA Finals, a year-end tournament featuring the top-eight players in the women’s game, split into two groups.

Ranked No. 4 — the highest ever singles ranking for a Canadian woman — Andreescu is in the purple group with No. 2 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, No. 8 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine and the No. 5-ranked Halep.

Ashleigh Barty of Australia (No. 1), Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic (No. 6), Belinda Bencic of Switzerland (No. 7) and Naomi Osaka of Japan (No. 3) make up the red group.

The four players in each group face each other in a round-robin format with the top two from both advancing to the semifinals. The winners of those matches will face each other for the title.

Andreescu has already had success against two players in her group. She beat Pliskova en route to her Rogers Cup title in Toronto in August, and Svitolina in March at Indian Wells, where she won her first WTA title.

"They were actually some of my toughest opponents this year so hopefully I can gain some confidence from those wins," Andreescu said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press from Shenzhen. "But it’s another tournament, different circumstances, different environment and it’s going to be a lot different.

"I feel like I kinda know what to expect, but we’ll see how it goes."

Andreescu described Pliskova, also a recent No. 1, as a "very hard hitter" with a huge serve. Svitolina, on the other hand is "more of a counter-puncher."

Halep is more of a mystery as the only player in Andreescu’s group that she doesn’t have first-hand experience with.

"I think that she’s one of the biggest fighters on Tour so I know it’s not going to be easy," Andreescu said. "Her game style is really fun to watch, she gets to a lot of balls, she can vary her shots as well.

"I really like her mental toughness and her never-give-up attitude, I think that really makes her her."

Andreescu has a lot of those same qualities.

She began the year outside the top 150 before a string of solid results, including her Indian Wells title, skyrocketed her up the rankings. A shoulder injury kept her out of action for months before she returned to win the Rogers Cup and the U.S. Open, beating American superstar Serena Williams in both tournaments, to rise to No. 5.

But Andreescu is entering the WTA Finals on a rare defeat, losing to Osaka in the quarterfinals of the China Open earlier this month.

The loss was Andreescu’s first — not counting withdrawals and retirements — in more than six months on Tour. And while it stung, it also gave her a fresh perspective.

"It made me even more hungry not to lose (another) match," Andreescu said. "I’m going to do everything possible to try not to lose. I mean, it’s inevitable, you’re going to lose one day or another, that’s just the sport, and I dealt with it pretty well.

"It was a really good match, it could have gone either way."

Andreescu holds the best winning percentage among the eight competitors at the WTA Finals with a 48-5 record this season. She was 8-0 against top-10 opponents before the loss to Osaka.

Having the 22-year-old Osaka in the other group in Shenzhen means Andreescu could face her in either the semifinals or final.

And if that happens, she’ll be prepared.

"I know how she plays now, first of all," Andreescu said. "I’m just going to take all of that and build from it and hopefully if I play her again this tournament we can have another good match."

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