Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka played “hit singles” on Friday in Beijing.
Fans loved the music these two singles players produced in China. This Premier Mandatory quarterfinal hit all the right notes.
Andreescu showed why she had won 17 straight matches and had not lost a full-length match since March 1 to Sofia Kenin in Acapulco. She showed why she was 8-0 against the top 10, bolting to a 7-5, 3-1 lead and making most people think she was going to continue her winning ways.
Naomi Osaka reminded everyone what the 2019 Australian Open champion looked like. I refer to that major title and not the 2018 U.S. Open because at the 2018 U.S. Open, Osaka dominated. This was not a dominant Osaka.
This was the resourceful Osaka who came back from set deficits in multiple matches to win the 2019 Australian Open. This was the player who regrouped after getting punched in the mouth and used her defense to not only reset points, but force opponents to hit more shots from uncomfortable positions than they were expecting (or hoping).
It is true that Andreescu went through a lull in the second set of this match against Osaka. To that extent, she did something we have seen many times before. The ascent of Andreescu to the top five of the world rankings has been built not on flawless tennis, but on resilient tennis. Andreescu won 13 straight 3-setters heading into this match, and when she took a 3-1 lead in the third, it seemed that #SheTheNorth would continue to be #3TheNorth as well.
What changed the match: Osaka’s defense.
If you recall the 2019 U.S. Open final against Serena Williams, Andreescu’s fundamental desire to get on top of points as quickly as possible — applying immediate pressure with forceful groundstrokes and very few medium-pace rally balls — was not sufficiently blunted by Serena’s defense. Serena’s shots from neutral or defensive positions did not hold up well enough.
No one’s shots from non-offensive positions held up well enough against Andreescu — not at the U.S. Open, not in Toronto, not for the balance of the 2019 hardcourt year.
For the first time since Kenin in Acapulco, Osaka represented an opponent who could spit back the ball from defensive positions without her shot breaking down often enough to give Andreescu easier points in important moments.
Osaka showed plenty of dazzling offense in this match, especially from her backhand side, but her defense set the tone — and the stage — for her comeback.
Andreescu’s streaks — overall match wins, wins against the top 10, and wins in 3-setters — all ended.
The real question is this: Though Andreescu’s streaks have ended, can the WTA find a new beginning?
This was a smash hit single. It was the song fans were waiting to hear, and the notes were all delightful to listen to, a symphonic delight.
People will get excited about this song… but now, can it go on tour?
Rock concerts in Melbourne and Roland Garros and Wimbledon and New York… or Indian Wells and Miami and Canada and Cincinnati… will electrify more tennis fans and build the big new rivalry the WTA needs.
We all remember Osaka beating Aryna Sabalenka at the U.S. Open a year ago and thinking, “Gosh, what if this can be the next great women’s tennis rivalry in the 2020s, the 10-year battle which captures the imagination of the sport’s fans and commentators?”
One year later, we have Osaka-Andreescu.
We know how great the music is. It just needs to go on a worldwide tour, with many reunions where fans eagerly await the feel-good hits… from the forehand and backhand wings.
Am I comparing Andreescu to revered Canadian musician Joni Mitchell? No.
But you can allow your imagination to work with this analogy, oui?
We will see if Osaka-Andreescu becomes the big-stage performance which keeps selling out at arenas all over the world. It would be great if it happened… but as we saw with Sabalenka this year, life offers no guarantees that the next great rivalry in women’s tennis will, in fact, take off.
To be continued? Hopefully… but we don’t know.
Oui gonna see.
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