Serena Williams, so strong of limb and spirit, could not disguise her inner frailty when she stumbled at the tape in the US Open final, and tennis embraced another new teenage champion, Bianca Andreescu, who took an hour and 40 minutes to win 6-3, 7-5 on her grand slam final debut.
It was a match of uneven quality but festooned in unalloyed drama and much history. It also crowned the best first appearance in the tournament decider since Venus Williams lost to Martina Hingis in the 1997 final.
Serena has reached four of six slam finals (most recently losing to Andreescu’s friend Simona Halep at Wimbledon) since giving birth two years ago, but has yet to win one and remains stuck one short of the all-time record 24 majors owned by Margaret Court.
Williams said afterwards: “I was just fighting, trying to stay out there a little bit longer. The fans were cheering so hard it made me fight a little bit harder. Bianca played an unbelievable match. I wish I could have played better. I feel really honoured to be out here, and still competing at this level. It’s not easy in this sport after 20 years. Hopefully we’ll have some ups soon.”
The new champion, as cool as a seasoned pro and the first Canadian to win a major, said: “It’s so hard to explain. I’m just beyond grateful. I’ve worked really, really hard for this moment. This year has been a dream come true. Being able to play against Serena, a true legend of the sport, is amazing. It wasn’t easy at all. I’m really proud of how I dealt with everything. I know you guys wanted Serena to win. I’m so sorry. I just tried my best to block everything out.”
Williams began the match with a 97mph ace wide to the backhand, one of her slowest, but the two double faults that followed, as she strove for rhythm, cost her the game. It was a dream start for the debutant finalist.
A fiery hold in the third showed how much winning this title for a seventh time meant to Williams, though. She clearly dreaded the prospect of losing to two teenagers in a row in her home final.
There was anger in every forehand and one smashed winner threatened to rattle the corporate windows. The crowd were with her, apparently having forgiven her for her meltdown when losing to Naomi Osaka in the decider a year ago.
Andreescu did not lack for support from north of the border and looked composed and patient, waiting for her chance to lengthen her lead. She more than likely knew that Williams was 21-0 in slam finals when taking the first set. The Canadian needed to get on the board first.
The match was turning into an unapologetic hitting contest, with little between them in full-blooded exchanges – and much grunting. Williams saved five break points in the long seventh game and held with a ferocious forehand down the line.
The American got her first break point after 36 minutes but Andreescu found an ace and held for 5-3. She then grabbed set point with a killer forehand after 42 minutes – and Williams double-faulted. The door edged open.
When nerves gripped Williams’s racket in the second game of the second set, she double-faulted on break point again. It was starting to look ugly. Andreescu’s demeanour did not change, much as Osaka had stayed calm at the centre of the storm on the 2018 final.
Williams grabbed four break points in the third game – blowing the third with a poor challenge – and clipped the net to get back on serve. It was a break in both senses of the word.
Williams was just finding some form and control when another double fault put her in peril again, and Andreescu broke her again to go a set and 3-1 up after a little over an hour of a match that was expected to go long. If she could hold her nerve, the title was hers.
A weird episode brought a hush over the packed Arthur Ashe Stadium when Williams stopped in the last shot of the fifth game, seeming to lose balance and cohesion, and shoving the backhand wide to go 1-4 down.
Struggling physically now as well as mentally, she looked lost in the one place she had nearly always seemed most comfortable, a tennis court. The errors grew, the self-belief drained from her. She double-faulted for the sixth time, but Andreescu could not convert the first of two break points. She didn’t need to. Williams wearily put a forehand wide, and Andreescu served for the title.
Would there be a last charge from the former champion? The strength had left her racket. Shots dropped short or sailed long. She kept punching, though, hunting down a drop shot, getting back for the lob and forcing an overcooked forehand from her opponent.
On her knees, metaphorically, she saved match point, catching Andreescu off guard with a decent return. A few shots from her memory bank, against all prior indications, kept her in it – and Andreescu, who had the match on her racket after an hour and a quarter, threw her a lifeline with a lazy forehand.
Energised, Williams held for 3-5. The pressure switched like an unruly hurricane to the other end. Hitting the ball became a chore not a joy for Andreescu. Williams broke for 4-5.
On the changeover, the crowd went crazy for Williams, and she looked around the stadium, in either puzzlement or appreciation. Andreescu put her head under a towel.
Andreescu did not touch the ball in the first four points of Williams’s service game: ace, double-fault, ace, double-fault. When she did, she hit too wide, and Williams had won four games in a row for parity.
Only then did Andreescu belatedly come to life, holding nervously to 30. After an hour-and-a-half, Williams served to stay in the match for the third time. Andreescu got two match points 23 minutes after her previous one – and Williams saved one with a wide ace similar to the one with which she started the contest. But there was nothing she could do about the forehand winner that ended the agony.
As Martina Navratilova said of Andreescu’s temporary disappearance: “You don’t win matches against Serena playing not to lose, you play to win.” In the end, that’s exactly what she did.
In 11 seasons, the 28-year-old Johanna Konta has beaten top five players just seven times; since Andreescu joined the Tour in 2015, Andreescu has beaten seven top-10 players, and the results have come in a rush, interrupted by injury, over the past year.
Last year she couldn’t get out of qualifying in all four slams and finished the year ranked 178 in the world. When she leaves here, winning in her fourth appearance in a main draw, she will celebrate a remarkable season by breaking into the top 10.