Then Along Came Bianca
There was a time when it didn’t take much to get Canadians excited. In 1976 the nation nearly imploded when Greg Joy finished with a silver medal in high jump at the Montreal Olympics. In 1972, Karen Magnusson became a legend in Canada by winning silver in women’s figure skating at the Olympics. Ditto for Elizabeth Manley in 1988 in Calgary.
When I was on the voting panel the Canada Sports Hall of Fame for five years, it was easy to keep within the restriction of six new members per year. The nominees were obvious, and it made for an easy day’s work to come up with a list.
Those days are gone. If you didn’t think that the bar in Canada has been set much, much higher you only needed to check out the crushed countenance of film maker Spike Lee on Saturday at Flushing Meadows. Bedecked in fuschia, Lee was there to Do The Right Thing (so shoot me) by Serena Williams, probably the greatest female tennis player ever.
As the Women’s Singles Final unfolded in the late summer sun at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Lee went from fervid fan to guest at a sports funeral. As the inevitability of Williams’ loss sank in, his head sank low, his eyes downcast. After a while ESPN simply gave up showing him or Megan Markle, the Duchess of Something or other, who was cheering against one of her husband Harry’s subjects.
Instead, ESPN began scanning the seats for Canadians with their ubiquitous maple leafs. That was something of a chore in a stadium that was backing Williams by at least 90 percent. And while there’ll be ten thousand Canadians who’ll claim to have been there to see Serena lunge— and miss— the final bullet from Bianca Andreescu, there were just enough on hand to represent for the ESPN lens.
Andreescu’s stunning defenestration of the immortal Serena was instantly declared among the top moments ever for a single Canadian athlete. Sprinter Donovan Bailey’s audacious double golds in Atlanta in 1996. Mike Weir winning the Masters in 2003. Simon Whitfield winning the gold medal for triathlon in the 2000 Games. Not much else compares, really.
What may set Andreescu’s triumph above them all will be answered by what she does next. Bailey tore his achilles tendon before he could defend his gold in Sydney in 2000 (he almost made it). Weir was simply a placeholder in a year where Tiger Woods battled injuries, a plucky winner who lost his swing and then his health. Whitfield stayed an elite athlete but could not duplicate his Olympic gold.
If the teenaged buzz bomb fulfills the legacy that so many in the tennis world predict— Williams baldly said Andreescu is the NEXT one— there will be many more such moments in the future. A Wimbledon title? Olympic gold? A Grand Slam? The way she overwhelmed Williams says the sky is the limit.
Remember, Serena had breezed through the Open, putting aside challengers like so many ball girls who’d just happened to pick up a racket against her. Yes, she’s 37, but her immense power, her shot making and her indomitable will remain formidable to any young woman who stands across a court from her.
Then along came Bianca.
Of course, Canada had gotten its tennis shorts in a knot this way for Genie Bouchard in 2014. When she made the Wimbledon Final she was the Chosen Tennis One. But the attention, the pressure, the wear on her body derailed Bouchard to where her Pintys commercials from days gone by are a sour joke.
That’s where Andreescu presumable will be different. Perhaps it’s simply her precocity. Perhaps it’s her dramatic style that always seems one injury away from derailing her. Or maybe it’s her mother fussing with the designer clothes and little dog CoCo in the players’ box.
Whatever the stage business, Andreescu has IT. She’s an alpha performer. You can’t say that about players such as Sloane Stephens (the 2017 women’s champ) or even world No. 1 Naomi Osaka (the 2018 winner). They’re talented world-class tennis players. But no one will tell you they beat you with their will.
Andreescu has that mettle. If you’re looking for the moment when Williams knew she was in deep trouble against Andreescu, forget anything that happened Saturday. (Although there were tell-tale moments then). No, Serena knew she was up against a different cat when she looked up through her veil of tears in Toronto in August to find Bianca consoling her for having to pull the chute in the Rogers Cup final.
With her face in Serena’s grill she did a profanity-laced fan letter about how great Williams’ was, how she’d had injuries, too. The temerity! You could see from Serena’s stunned expression that if Andreescu’s nerve was this acute the Canadian was not going to be intimidated playing her in the Open Final in NYC.
So it proved. Even as Serena mounted her furious, futile comeback in the second set, one sensed that Andreescu was simply giving Spike Lee & Co. a good show, letting them hoot and holler a bit before she brought down the hammer. Williams complained afterward about not playing at all well. But that was due in large measure to the overwhelming pressure applied from the other side of the court.
If she was frustrated and gassed (truly she can’t go three sets against elite players any longer) she has Andreescu to thank. But first, she’ll have to get in line as 37 million Canadian want to thank her first.
Postscript: Despite what you’re hearing, Andreescu is not the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam title. Daniel Nestor has won eight Grand Slam titles in doubles at all the majors in his Methuselian career. He’s tenth in history for most men's ATP titles. Credit due.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also a best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps Are Killing Pro Sports And Why The Free Market Could Save Them is now available on brucedowbigginbooks.ca.