Over the past year, women’s tennis had been reduced to two enormous brands.
On the one side, Serena Williams – the sport’s ageless godmother. On the other, Naomi Osaka – the somewhere between next-gen and current-gen Williams.
After starting their business partnership in a snit at the U.S. Open final in 2018, the two have become great pals. This is schoolyard mythology at work – the kid who beats you up on the first day of class eventually becomes your best friend.
Beyond their ability, Williams and Osaka were uniquely fitted for the moment. As politics pushed its way into the centre of the sporting conversation, here were two stars able and willing to lead that discussion. Men’s tennis had no analogous spokesperson. It happily ceded the territory to the WTA’s co-heads of communications.
It’s been a marvellous one-two. Williams brings the Q rating; Osaka supplies the quality. From the broadcasters’ perspective, tennis is at its dramatic best when it is reduced to two titans marching toward each other in a straight line at a major. Simple stories make for the best telling.
Williams had two important foils in her long career – her sister, Venus, and her nemesis, Maria Sharapova. But Osaka was turning into her closest competitor.
The problem with this story is that it doesn’t work as well when someone else elbows their way into the picture.
Just as everyone was getting warmed up for a summer of Williams v. Osaka at Grand Slams and the Olympics, here comes Bianca Andreescu.
It’s been a while since Andreescu won the 2019 U.S. Open. I was there, and if you asked me to guess off the top of my head, I’d say it was five years ago.
Andreescu was famously injured right after summiting tennis’s peak. She spent the next calendar year pinwheeling down the mountain.
There was a lot of heat surrounding Andreescu’s return at the Australian Open, much of it self-generated. Then she went out and got dismantled by the world No. 71. Afterward, she blamed her fitness, after weeks spent talking up the incredible quality of her fitness.
You were beginning to get a quasi-Milos Raonic feeling about Andreescu. Was she one of those pros gifted with oodles of talent, but cursed by brittleness? Were the most epic showdowns of her career going to be with a physiotherapist?
You got a look at the two polarities at the just-completed Miami Open.
Miami is a mini-major. It gives you a sense of where everybody’s at during the long interlude separating the Australian Open and the French Open. Back when she was first asserting herself as a pro, Serena Williams used to own this tournament.
Williams took a pass on Miami this year. A bit too COVID-y. Plus, it had slashed the prize money in order to defray costs.
Osaka was there in body, but apparently not in spirit. She took a figurative knee in the quarters and earned herself an extra-long weekend.
That left the field clear for Andreescu.
She was able to make the final. What she could not do was make it look easy. The four matches preceding the last one went to three sets. By the time Saturday rolled around, Andreescu had played the equivalent of two tournaments.
So it wasn’t exactly a shock that Andreescu ran into her opponent in the final, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, like she was hitting a waist-high wall. The headline out of the match was a rolled ankle that forced Andreescu to retire, 3-6, 0-4.
But as you can see from the score, she was already well on her way to a miserable loss when that happened. That ankle saved Andreescu her blushes.
The big question now – is Andreescu back? Like, not back as in playing. But back as in playing better than anyone else.
You’d have said she was close to that on Friday. But on Saturday afternoon, as she was lying on the court in a puddle, you had your doubts.
It feels as though Andreescu is always going to be one of those athletes who’s at least a little bit hurt. That’s not necessarily a disaster. Andreescu at 80 or 90 per cent may still be good enough to win majors. But that does shorten her shelf life. She’s only 20, but she may not have as much time as she’d like.
Then there is the matter of figuring out where Andreescu fits now in the hierarchy of women’s tennis.
At that U.S. Open in 2019, the tennis world was delighted at the idea of making her regent until whenever Williams decided to retire fully. Andreescu had the right mix of talent, charisma and understanding of her place in the pecking order. But during her long injury absence, Osaka assumed her spot.
This is where the drama comes in. A fully fit Andreescu is in danger of screwing this up for the Americans (or, in Osaka’s case, Japanese-Americans). The United States doesn’t ask for much. All it wants is to dominate everything it does, and only talk about itself. Williams and Osaka are the perfect vehicle for that self-satisfied conversation. Now here comes Canada, trying to horn in on the action, and not even offering to become the 51st state.
In this analogy, Andreescu is Novak Djokovic. That’s not to suggest that she’s two beers short of a six pack, but that three’s a crowd. As with Djovokic, her re-emergence threatens to turn a beloved duo act into a full band.
If Andreescu is looking for motivation beyond the sort you get from the average mindfulness app, here it is. She is the player who can screw up the story the WTA badly wants to tell its broadcast partners and sponsors.
That’s what Djokovic did on the other side of the bracket. With his selfish insistence on winning, he ruined the last good years of Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal.
That’s why no one loves Djokovic. It may be why he’s gone from a six-foot-tall Labrador retriever of a man in his youth to a vaguely sullen, middle-aged superstar.
In the short term at least, this can be Andreescu’s new role: the spoiler. That would mean that her finish line isn’t just trophies. It’s redefining the status quo.