When Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka strode out onto the main court in Beijing for their China Open quarterfinal match, they did so with the eyes of the sporting world firmly fixed on them. The pair, who have won the past two US Open titles between them, were set to contest the first match of what many expect to become the next great rivalry in the women’s game. And they spent the next two hours and fourteen minutes suggesting that’s exactly what it will be.
By the time Osaka had sent down her tenth ace to seal her place in the semifinals and snap Andreescu’s 17-match winning streak, there could hardly have been a tennis fan in the world who was not entirely enthralled.
An Andreescu Osaka clash to live long in the memory
Andreescu had said earlier in the week that she had almost forgotten how to lose. And it certainly looked that way in the early running. Andreescu’s variety and depth off the ground caused Osaka real problems and, despite a valiant effort from the Japanese fourth seed, the first set deservedly went the way of the Canadian, seven games to five. The contrast between the guile of Andreescu and the thunderous power of Osaka had made it a gripping watch. And adding to the intrigue was the marked difference in their on-court demeanour, with Andreescu fired-up and demonstrative and Osaka quieter and more studied in her reactions.
But that measured on-court persona should not be mistaken for a lack of fight. Osaka, despite going a break down early in the second, had no intention of fading out of the contest. She dug in, breaking back and then breaking again to take the match to a decider. There, it was again Andreescu who struck first. But Osaka roused herself to the fight once more, breaking back to restore parity and send the match hurtling towards a tense, thrilling conclusion. But when Osaka broke the Andreescu serve again to move into a 5-4 lead, she looked to have the match firmly within her grasp.
Instead, the final game, in a fitting microcosm of the match, saw swings of momentum, nail-biting drama and some superb tennis. First Andreescu forced a break point with a superb return of serve hit for a clean winner, only to squander it with an errant backhand return that slammed wide into the tramlines. Osaka then double-faulted away her first match point, before erroneously challenging with Andreescu’s shot having clipped the back edge of the baseline on her second. Undeterred, Osaka fired a leaping backhand winner, greeted by a rare triumphant roar from the Japanese, down the line to bring up a third match and there was to be no third escape for Andreescu.
If it were possible to bottle the essence of a match then this would surely be a celebrated vintage. Now it just remains to watch, wait and hope that this rivalry lives up to the promise shown by its first instalment.
The WTA’s future shines bright
The WTA will surely be hoping that the next instalment of Andreescu vs Osaka isn’t too far away. Particularly with the powers of the great Serena Williams looking to be on the wane. Unsurprisingly, when a giant of the game leaves the world stage, the governing bodies of the sport are faced with a real challenge to avoid a drop in fan engagement. That explains the desperate search on the ATP tour for the heirs to Roger Federer, Rafael and Novak Djokovic, and the hope that they’ll be dethroned by an opponent other than time.
But whilst replacing Williams is next to impossible, the WTA looks to be in safe hands as the list of WTA stars under the age of 23 demonstrates. Osaka and Andreescu are leading the way, but they are far from alone. Set to challenge them for mastery of the women’s game over the coming years are world #10 Belinda Bencic, world #14 Aryna Sabalenka, world #16 Sofia Kenin and Roland Garros finalist Marketa Vondrousova, ranked 21st in the world. Not far behind them are a group of fast-rising stars born since 2000 such as Amanda Anisimova and Dayana Yastremska, both ranked inside the top 30, Iga Swiatek at world #61 and the American stars Caty McNally and Coco Gauff, neither yet 18 but both on the cusp of breaking into the top 100.
Some of those players have already clashed on tour. The remainder seem certain to do so sooner rather than later. So far all that Andreescu vs Osaka mk. 1 was a clash that will live long in the memory, don’t forget that it was just the start. The start of something that looks to be very special.
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