Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu had never faced each other on the tennis court before, and their first meeting at the China Open earlier this week was anything but a letdown.
Women’s tennis has so much going for it: new stars from different continents, week-to-week suspense, and grande dame Serena Williams’ ongoing quest for a 24th major singles title.
What the women’s game lacks is the same element it has lacked for far too many years: a transcendent, long-running rivalry.
That is why Friday’s quarterfinal at the China Open between Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu was appointment viewing, even in inconvenient time zones.
Could this turn out to be the one?
“The next thing the WTA needs is that big rivalry,” said Tracy Austin, the analyst and former No. 1. “Right now, the excitement with the WTA is that it’s multigenerational and it’s global.”
Osaka is 21 and the first player from Japan to claim a Grand Slam singles title, winning the 2018 U.S. Open and the 2019 Australian Open.
Andreescu is 19 and just became the first player from Canada to win a major singles title when she beat Williams at the U.S. Open last month.
Osaka and Andreescu had never played, and their first meeting was anything but a letdown. They exchanged bold shots and bright ideas for 2 hours, 14 minutes in Beijing.
Their games matched up beautifully, and Osaka dug herself out of several holes to put an end to Andreescu’s 17-match unbeaten streak with a late-night thriller, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3, on her third match point.
“I just tried to breathe,” Osaka said. “I know she’s such an amazing player.”
Earlier in the week, Andreescu was asked about all the momentum she had acquired in the past few months after recovering from a rotator cuff injury to win the Rogers Cup and U.S. Open.
“I don’t want to sound, like, cocky or anything, but I kind of forgot how it feels to lose, which I think is a good thing,” she said. “When I do visualize and meditate, I always make sure to feel the feeling of myself winning. It’s good that I forgot about the other feeling.”
She had not lost a completed match since March 1, when she was beaten in the semifinals of the Mexican Open by Sofia Kenin. Andreescu had never lost to a top-10 player, going 8-0 in her brief time on tour.
But Osaka broke that streak and reacquainted Andreescu with that “other feeling.”
“I didn’t miss it,” Andreescu said.
She had some fine chances to postpone it Friday. She was more consistent and decisive in the early going, pouncing repeatedly on Osaka’s second serve to go up by a set and a break before Osaka rallied.
Andreescu took a 3-1 lead in the third set, too. But the fourth-ranked Osaka, who has looked adrift at times in 2019 after winning in Australia, appears to be in a much more secure place at this less pressurized stage of the season.
She won the Japan Open last month in her namesake and birth city of Osaka. After splitting with two coaches this year—Sascha Bajin and Jermaine Jenkins—Osaka is working with her father, Leonard Francois, on this Asian swing.
She looks focused and eager, unburdened in a sense, and she broke Andreescu twice in the third set, with a backhand winner each time.
It was the kind of shotmaking in the clutch that makes for a great match, the kind that Andreescu has specialized in this year as she fought through three-setters and past higher-ranked opposition to rise to No. 5 in the rankings. She is currently No. 6.
It has been one of the most vertiginous climbs in WTA history.
Last October, after recovering from a back injury, she was ranked No. 242 in the world and played in minor-league events, including one in Florence, South Carolina, with $25,000 in total prize money. She beat Osaka’s older sister, Mari, in the final.
In 2019, Andreescu has earned over $6 million in prize money, with plenty more beginning to flow in from off-court deals.
“Her story is crazy,” Austin said.
But Osaka, who has had an unlikely journey of her own to the top, was able to keep Andreescu’s 2019 from getting even crazier by holding serve in an edgy final game.
Andreescu’s best chance came at 30-40 when she missed a backhand return wide off a second serve, choosing big risk over a higher-percentage play on what turned out to be her last break point.
Osaka took a deep breath, expelled it and then hit a service winner down the T to get her first match point. But then she double-faulted. Andreescu saved the second match point with a deep return that landed on the baseline, and Osaka challenged unsuccessfully.
Osaka took another deep breath, and the next point turned into a high-velocity rally. Andreescu changed the pace, which has become one of her trademarks, but her looping forehand landed short, and Osaka pummeled a leaping backhand winner down the line.
She then sliced an ace on the next point to win the match, which, if this matchup beats the odds, was a resounding way to kick off an epic rivalry.
Not that Osaka was in a hurry for Round 2.
“Listen, I don’t want to play her anymore,” Osaka said, sparking laughter in the Beijing press room. “I’m good. One and done.”
It was quite a draining tussle, quite a spectacle, even with empty seats visible in the stadium. Above all, it was a duel between two young women who have established themselves as appealing, intriguing champions in a crowded WTA landscape.
Now, they need to make such duels a habit with major titles at stake or, in the meantime, at this month’s WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China.
“We’re going to have so many more matches like this,” Andreescu said at the net as she turned their postmatch handshake into a hug. “I can’t wait to see what the future holds.” © 2019 The New York Times