First of many as Osaka edges Andreescu

Through Canadian Bianca Andreescu’s remarkable rise this season, there were a few highly intriguing top-10 matchups she had not yet experienced.

There is role model Simona Halep, No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and – perhaps most fascinating of all – Naomi Osaka of Japan.

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The Osaka vs. Andreescu debut took place Friday night in the Beijing quarterfinals. And much of the 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 Osaka victory very much had the feel of … a feeling-out process. 

There was more than enough quality in the two-hour, 14-minute match to create plenty of appetite for more. A lot more. Because you’d expect the 21-year-old Osaka and the 19-year-old Andreescu to meet often, on the sports’s grandest stages.

This was not necessarily one of those. While it’s a top-level tournament, the small crowd in Beijing rarely got involved Friday night to help make it come alive. These two will have far more electric moments. And that will only make the tennis even better.

In their first-ever meeting, rarely did Andreescu and Osaka play well at the same time. And the roller-coaster nature of the encounter had everything to do with how they match up, how their strengths are complementary. The outcome very much depended on how well each executed them.

And that’s why it should be one of the eagerly-awaited matchups going forward. The contrast in strengths, styles and temperaments means the potential is off the charts.

“Kind of forgot how it feels to lose”

Andreescu might have jinxed herself when she said – not without justification – that she didn’t want to sound cocky, but she’d kind of forgotten how it feels to lose. But the facts were there to back that up that confidence.

The Canadian had not lost a completed match since Acapulco, more than seven months ago. That’s 17 straight, including titles at Indian Wells, the Rogers Cup and the US Open.

She had had been 8-0 against top-10 players. She had won 13 consecutive three-set matches.

Osaka is no slouch in that department; she was 14-3 in three-setters going in.

But at the start, Andreescu looked just as she did throughout much of that winning streak.

She aired out her arm in the early points of the first game, as Andreescu chose to serve first. She was looking to return deep, but needed a few shots to find the range.

From 40-love, Osaka was broken. The change-of-pace pattern that has been the key to Andreescu’s success kicked in on the break point. She hit a slice, forcing Osaka to hit an awkward forehand slice back. She hit another slice, and Osaka hit a forehand into the net.

“I feel like in the beginning we were just scoping each other out. I could not find the mental line of not being nervous and also being fired up. That was a bit of a struggle,” Osaka told the media in Beijing, via the WTA Tour website. “She was probably thinking, ‘Wow, what is she doing? … Wow, she won two Grand Slams like that?’ “

Big serves vs. big returns

What was apparent is that Andreescu will most often win the battle of second serves between these two. She was firing it in the 90-95 mph range, while Osaka rarely broke 80 mph. Osaka had to know, as Serena Williams found out in New York, that one of Andreescu’s go-to game plans is to really attack the second serve, opting for depth when the outright winner isn’t an option.

Andreescu is able to do that consistently, where so many players – even top ones – hesitate That’s because she’s not wary of finding herself in areas way inside the court that might be the destination if the player really steps in on a weaker second serve. She knows what to do there.

With two breaks and a 5-1 lead, Andreescu was on a roll. But she had barely missed, while Osaka had missed plenty. And before you knew it, the pendulum had swung and Osaka had recuperated the two breaks.

Beijing
THE CURSE OF THE MISSING ELASTIC? At left, Andreescu earlier in the tournament with the now-trademark hair band around her right arm. On the right, a hair-bandless Andreescu against Naomi Osaka. Coincidence? Or streak breaker?

One drop shot turns the Osaka tide

It seemed to turn at 5-2, when Andreescu served for the set for the first time. She tried the forehand drop shot for the first time at 30-15 in that game, on a ball she could have driven. And she missed it. Not by much, but she did. And then Osaka went on a roll of her own.

As Andreescu’s level dropped, Osaka had to feel it. The Japanese star suddenly was no longer on the defensive.  She was able to be more balanced when she hit her shots, thus cutting down on the errors. She was changing direction more, taking control of the points a little better, and with better margin. You can’t do that when you’re scrambling; you have to be on the offensive or, at the very least, in neutral situations.

But, just as she did at the US Open when Williams rallied from 1-5 in that second set, Andreescu reset well. She broke, and held at love for the first set.

The difference in that first set was in the effectiveness of the second serve. Andreescu won more than half of hers; Osaka won just 31 per cent of hers.

That matchup of Andreescu’s returning skills with the relative weakness of Osaka’s second serve will be one to watch going forward.

Beijing

Osaka picks up the level

In the second set, Osaka improved her second-serve efficiency. Part of that was just the fact that she found the rhythm on her first serve.

But not right away.

The second serve remained attackable for the most part. But in this set, Andreescu made more mistakes on those than she had in the first set. 

Still, the Canadian broke for 2-1, and saved a break point to consolidate that break and go up 3-1.

Then, Osaka won five straight games – and the second set. As Andreescu’s level dropped, Osaka’s rose. She was more zoned in on Andreescu’s second serve, and Andreescu lost a little courage with that stroke. And when Osaka stepped in to the court, she hardly lost a point. On the other side of the net, Andreescu was allowing her opponent to step into the court. She lost some depth, notably on her own return of serve.

Two blown 3-1 leads

Both Osaka and Andreescu struggled to win points on their second serves in the third set.

Andreescu went 3-for-9; Osaka went a woeful 2-for-12.

So it came down to Osaka’s biggest weapon: her first serve.

The Canadian had a shot to put her stamp on that third set from the start, when she held serve and had a break point on Osaka’s serve in in the second game. She had a 125-mph second serve to work with, too. But where she was putting those away in the first set, she missed this one into the net.

Still, Andreescu once again had a 3-1 lead after she broke in the next return game. But then, she flinched a little. She showed just the littlest hints of frailty here and there, and it was enough for Osaka to get it back on serve.

Andreescu might have called out coach Sylvain Bruneau at that point, because it seemed as though the momentum was slipping away to a greater extent than the match merely being back even.

But she decided to problem-solve on her own. 

Osaka wins the final matchups

Osaka was dictating a lot more, and Andreescu was doing a lot more running. And the Canadian wasn’t able to attack the second serve as much simply because Osaka was serving so much better overall.

In that matchup of big strengths, the Japanese player won this round.

And in the “break-point” matchup, which matches Andreescu’s strength in bringing her best tennis in those key moments against Osaka’s ability to convert, the Japanese player also won this round.

In most return categories in 2019, Andreescu ranks higher than Osaka. But not on this day.

Still, in that ultimate game, Andreescu showed her quality. She carved out a break point opportunity by crushing an 81-mph second serve down the line. But she couldn’t do the same on break point.

She saved a match point by returning a 76-mph second serve on the line. But the first serve again was the difference; Osaka wrapped it up with an ace, her 10th of the match.

“My game plan going in was to just be the more aggressive player. I can’t be the defensive one. Just trust myself, trust my serve, be aggressively consistent until I have the shot,” Osaka said.

Eventually, she got there.

Andreescu, the hug bandit

Beijing

Anyone who’s known Andreescu since she was a junior knows that the hug is her “go-to”.

And despite the tough loss, she was the one with her arms out at the net, ready to wrap them around a somewhat abashed Osaka.

The 21-year-old finally managed to switch her racket from the left hand to the right, in order to accept and return the embrace.

There were nice words said – a credit to Andreescu, who had seen a star-making winning streak end. That she appreciates the battle as much as the outcome will serve her well.

“I forgot how it feels [to lose]. Honestly, it sucks. I didn’t miss it at all. But at least I didn’t get whooped 1 and 1. I put on a fight. Honestly, it could have went either way. It was just some points here and there,” Andreescu told the media in Beijing, as reported on the WTA Tour website.

“At the same time I am pissed, but at the same time I’m proud of myself with how I played today. I really fought, especially in that last game. Holy crap, that was crazy.”

The moment was a concrete expression of the Osaka’s observation that they’re very different, personality-wise.

Those types of contrasts are what makes for great rivalries. So is the level of tennis that both these young players can produce.

For Andreescu, it might have been a blessing in the end. To have – let’s say, for argument’s sake – won Beijing and taken that ever-increasing winning streak into the WTA Tour Finals.

Shenzhen isn’t for nearly three weeks, during which Andreescu won’t play. It might have been heavy.

For Osaka, who qualified for the Tour Finals with this victory, it’s a statement match she can build upon to finish a somewhat bumpy 2019 season in style.

She’ll face No. 16 seed and defending champion Caroline Wozniacki Saturday night, a player she has has yet to beat in two attempts.

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