Bianca Andreescu, a 19-year-old apparently blessed with every tennis gift besides consistent health, has enjoyed one of the most surreal debuts in tennis history. Her season’s been so good that she can toss off a quote like “I kind of forgot how to lose” and no fair observer bats an eye. Consider a few gaudy measures of her success in her first full season on the WTA, as of this morning. She piled up a 48-4 record; she took home three big titles including the U.S. Open; she faced eight top-10 players and beat all of them; she won 13 straight three-set matches; she reeled off a tour-best 17-match win streak. Today those last three runs finally came to an end with her 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 loss to world No. 4 Naomi Osaka in the China Open quarterfinal, as last year’s breakout star felled this year’s, in their first career meeting. If this is the rivalry at the core of women’s tennis over the next decade, then we’re all spoiled, and everyone wins except the tennis ball, which will be punished thoroughly:
Osaka started slow, and under constant pressure from Andreescu on her return games, quickly fell to a 1-5 deficit in the first set before gaining some traction in the match. From that point forward, in terms of style and quality, this meeting was exactly as compelling as hyped. Andreescu has every shot in her bag, dexterously mixing up spin and pace and shot length that is truly rare and, at this juncture of her career, straight-up prodigious. What’s interesting is that when going up against the tour’s best power hitters like Serena Williams (as she did in the U.S. Open final) or Osaka today, she almost seems compelled to beat them on their own terms. She can slug, too, and seems to enjoy proving it. She was aggressive off the first ball, lasering no fewer than five clean return winners in this match. Any rally over four strokes made for hypnotic viewing. Seeing Osaka and Andreescu rip groundstrokes on a hard court at full pace feels like a hair-raising vision of future major finals.
Osaka as as dangerous a player as Andreescu, if less complete. There are still gaps in her game—underspin is a rarity, and her touch sometimes falters—but she is only 21 years old and in the process of filling them, with two majors already to show for it. Watching these two tango in the frontcourt in one of the day’s best exchanges was fascinating:
The defensive lob is not an Osaka specialty either, but this one was perfectly weighted from an extremely difficult court position:
This quarterfinal lasted a brutal two hours and 14 minutes with no dip in quality. Andreescu has been a killer in deciding sets this season, which would at least superficially suggest that stamina is not at issue. But it was a physical match, and she has logged a lot of mileage lately with all that winning. In the third set of this match Andreescu appeared to lose her legs somewhat right as Osaka found hers. While serving out the match, Osaka cut short a long rally with some impeccable leaping footwork reminiscent of countryman Kei Nishikori:
Any highlight reel from a match this drawn-out and this virtuosic will be incomplete, but this one comes pretty close to capturing the feel:
Players this skilled this early will be bound to collide again and again; it’s more a matter of when and on what surface than if. Andreescu, for one, felt confident in predicting more matches like this one, and welcomed the challenge. “Our game styles are pretty different, but they level up pretty equally,” she said after the match. “If she’s playing well, like she did, I play well, then I think they level up very similarly.” And on the unfamiliar taste of defeat: “Honestly, it sucks. I didn’t miss it at all.”
The winner, for her part, was not quite as eager to run this one back. “Listen, I don’t want to play her anymore. I’m good, one-and-done,” Osaka said after the match, laughing. There’s no old-school, in-your-face antagonism, but that was never a part Osaka has felt compelled to play, even as she supplies plenty of spectacle on the court. This is a modern rivalry between two women who’ve barely scratched the surface of their professional careers. Her joke is token of respect for a player who wasn’t even in the top 50 while Osaka was busy winning her Australian Open, and is now, by October, perhaps the most formidable opponent on tour. Life comes at young geniuses fast.