It was agonizing watching Bianca Andreescu try to make history.
Something like watching a marathoner trying to finish in scorching conditions, stumbling over the final few hundred metres.
Undoubtedly, of course, it had to have been even more agonizing for Andreescu.
Serving for the match and a berth in the Rogers Cup final. Couldn’t convert.
Two points from the end. Couldn’t get there.
Three match points in a marathon 12th game on the second set against Sofia Kenin of the United States.
Couldn’t convert either.
A second set tie-break. Up 6-4. Two more match points. Missed the first.
But not the second.
Enough was enough. The 19-year-old Canadian hammered a cross-court backhand that Kenin, finally, could not reach. The crowd exploded. Kenin tossed her blue racquet in disgust and disappointment. Andreescu covered her face in utter disbelief. Then hugged Kenin at the net. Then lay flat on her back on the court, tears flowing.
“My body just wanted to let it all out,” she said afterwards. “Nothing beats this feeling.”
And so, a Canadian finalist at the Rogers Cup. Finally.
So many tried but couldn’t get there. Jill Hetherington. Carling Bassett-Seguso. Helen Kelesi. Patricia Hy-Boulais. Sonya Jeyaseelan. Jana Nejedly. Sharon Fichman. Aleksandra Wozniak. Eugenie Bouchard.
The Canadian Championships became the Canadian Open, which became the du Maurier Open, which became the Canadian Masters, and then finally the Rogers Cup. But still no Canadian could get anywhere close to the final.
In a different tennis world, Faye Urban of Windsor won the event in 1969, beating another Canadian, her doubles partner Vicki Berner. But then the pros took over and Canada’s drought at its own national championship began.
Until, that is, Andreescu ended it on Saturday with her 6-4, 7-6 (5) triumph. Now comes a chance for her to do what Brooke Henderson did for Canadian women’s golf last year at the LPGA Canadian Open in Saskatchewan when she brought that championship back to the Great White North for the first time in 50 years.
“I’ve been through so much in the last three months,” said a teary Andreescu in her on-court interview right after the match. “Now I’m a finalist at the Rogers Cup!”
Milos Raonic was the last Canadian of either gender to make it to the Rogers Cup final, losing to Rafael Nadal in 2013.
Andreescu’s breakthrough season, including its trials and tribulations in recent months, has been well-documented. She began the year ranked 152nd in the world. Then came the stunning victory at Indian Wells, followed by another run in Miami. Then shoulder problems. A brief appearance at Roland Garros, then no more tennis until the beginning of this week. Countless doctors and trips to deal with the issue. Endless rehab. A new fitness regime. A tweak of her service motion to try and avoid future problems.
“I had to change a lot of things. I didn’t come easy to me,” she said.
Nobody really knew what to expect coming into this week.
“I had zero expectations,” said Andreescu.
She faced compatriot Eugenie Bouchard in the first round and lost the first set, looking very rusty. But she pulled herself together and won the next two sets to move on.
Then came three successive three set victories over Daria Kasatkina, Kiki Bertens and Karolina Pliskova, the latter two both ranked among the WTA’s top five players. In all three matches, she toughed it out, fighting back against injuries and in-match struggles. Against Pliskova in the quarters, she romped in the first set 6-0, then fell behind in the second set 0-5, symbolic of her roller-coaster ride to the semifinal clash with Kenin.
The 20-year-old American brought a lot of fire and intensity to the match, but not enough weapons to really trouble Andreescu, who had beaten Kenin on two of three previous occasions. Andreescu won the first set in tricky, blustery conditions Saturday afternoon and was briefly down a break in the second but quickly evened the match.
The Sobeys Stadium crowd was, quite obviously, heavily pro-Andreescu, making the conditions even tougher for Kenin.
“It’s tough,” she said. “I don’t play in these conditions. You can’t practice it. But I knew it was going to happen. It wasn’t a shock. I just tried to block it out.”
More than struggling with her opponent, Andreescu struggled with her nerves. Serving at 5-3 in the second set to win the match she made four errors, including a slice backhand the sailed long, a forehand slice into the net, an unforced backhand error and finally another unforced error into the net.
It seemed Andreescu had lost her rhythm or her nerve. Or both.
“I felt momentum was starting to come my way,” said Kenin. “I could tell she was getting nervous. But it didn’t mean anything. She was going to fight.”
The match went on. Kenin held, then Andreescu held to go up 6-5. Kenin left the court for an extended medical timeout. The Canadian sat with a towel over her head, then picked up her racquet and walked back on court, then waited at the return line for Kenin to come back to resume the contest.
When the American did, it was with her left thigh heavily taped. She served to stay in the match, although that game lasted seven deuces and included three match points before Kenin managed to hold.
“I felt the match could go either way,” said Kenin.
The ensuing tie-break went back and forth. At 5-3 for Andreescu, she had an easy put away at the net, but hit the ball long. Nerves. Again.
But, finally, the winning backhand strike came, and it was a beauty. Confident and penetrating. Ultimately unreturnable.
“This is even bigger for me than Indian Wells was,” said Andreescu. “I’m beyond excited.
“I’m definitely surprising myself. I don’t realize the things I can do on the court. But maybe I am starting to realize it. Slowly.”