The blockbuster quarter-final at the China Open pitched former World No 1 Naomi Osaka against the hottest ticket in women’s tennis this year, Bianca Andreescu in a much-anticipated and riveting first clash between the two most recent US Open champions.
I feel like in the beginning we were just coping each other out Naomi Osaka
There was very little between them as they tentatively felt each other out for the first of, no doubt, many meetings yet in what promises to be an exciting rivalry.
At the last, it was Osaka who fought back from a set and a break down in both second and third sets to take the honours, 5-7 6-3 6-4, over the No 5 in 2 hours and 14 minutes to reach the China Open semi-finals.
“It meant a lot because I feel like people counted me out after the Europe thing,” Osaka said afterwards, referring to her clay and grass swings in which she did not reach a final.
“I’m just like, I still won a slam this year, I won [Osaka]. I’m still here. But there’s a sort of beauty to be underrated.”
It marks the end of Andreescu’s winning streak, dating back to the 4th round of Miami in March, at 17, but extends Osaka’s own to 8 in this year’s Asian swing.
The Japanese No 1, who struck 31 winners to 30 unforced errors and 10 aces, also dealt out Andreescu’s first defeat at the hands of a Top 10 opponent in 9 matches.
“I forgot how it feels [to lose],” said Andreescu. “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. 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 Canadian’s competitive edge was fully on display from the outset as she probed relentlessly at the Osaka serve.
Despite the Japanese No 1 winning 78% of her first serves, Andreescu’s relentlessly aggressive approach to returning the second delivery limited her to only 31% of those points and meant that holding, even with a lead, was rarely straightforward.
Osaka was broken from 40-0 up in the first game, 40-30 up in the 5th, and 30-0 up in the penultimate game of the set.
Andreescu, meanwhile, was also deploying her full repertoire off the ground, breaking up the rhythm of rallies with biting slices before injecting sudden pace to take control.
Forced by the 19-year-old’s supreme anticipation into going for the lines, Osaka lapsed repeatedly into error and quickly fell behind 5-1.
Serving at 5-2, 30-15, Andreescu was in full control of a rally that would have given her 2 set points but an attempted drop-shot fluffed into the net and, suddenly, the momentum shifted as Osaka sensed a chance.
She struck her spots as Andreescu’s forehand deserted her, and Osaka roared back, levelling at 5-5 as the Canadian offered up a second double fault.
While many of the reigning US Open’ champion’s matches over the course of her winning streak have been marked by dramatic scoreboard fluctuations, it has rarely mattered in the end, and, once again, Andreescu gathered herself to take the set anyway,
winning a brilliant battle of forehand angles en route to reeling off the last 8 points of the opening act, making no mistake serving for it the third time.
The start of the second saw the teenager become even more daring and creative in her patterns of play, with curving, side-spun forehands followed by booming backhand winners, and forays to the net on any weak reply from Osaka.
A crucial tussle in the 3rd game was eventually captured by Andreescu on her 4th break point with a clever wrong-footing forehand.
Storming the net herself after booming returns, Osaka found a series of backhand bangers to test Andreescu again in the 6th game, and levelled when the Canadian coughed up a double fault.
The Japanese kept her foot firmly on the pedal to take 14 of the last 16 points of the set, taking the match into a decider.
She was entering a zone on serve, with Andreescu barely able to lay a racket to Osaka’s deliveries.
Serving at 3-4, Andreescu dictated every point, only to be undone by an errant drive volley and 2 remarkable winners off the back foot from Osaka.
Both produced some of their finest tennis as the quality rose even further, adjusting and testing each other.
Andreescu, demonstrating fine touch at net, struck first to take a 3-1 lead, but another breathtaking backhand winner down the line from Osaka garnered the break back immediately.
That shot would prove to be key for Osaka as she battled towards the finishing line, winning her another break for 5-4, and then, in a dramatic final game, having squandered her first match point with a double fault and a second with an erroneous challenge, she carved up a third chance.
This time, Osaka made no mistake sending an un-returnable first serve down the tee to seal a magnificent victory.
“I feel like in the beginning we were just coping each other out,” mused Osaka.
“I could not find the mental line of not being nervous and also being fired up. That was a bit of a struggle.
“She was probably thinking,, Wow, what is she doing?… Wow, she won two Grand Slams like that?”
Andreescu seemingly having an answer to everything Osaka threw at her was also an issue.
“Of course I’ve watched her play on TV, but it’s so different from actually playing against her,” said Osaka. “I know that she is incredibly smart.
“She knows when the rally isn’t working out for her, when to change it up and make it difficult for the other person. So just to experience that in person was very frustrating.
“But also I think for me, 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.”
Afterwards, Andreescu was already looking ahead to their next encounter
“I think we’re going to have many matches like this” she predicted. “Our game styles are pretty different, but they level up pretty equally.”
Osaka was not quite as keen: “Listen, I don’t want to play her any more, I’m good, one-and-done,” she joked, but accepted that this clash could be the start of a special rivalry.
“It’s bound to happen again,” she said. ” I like seeing the younger players.
“I really love seeing Coco [Gauff], Iga [Swiatek], her do well. It gives me a lot of motivation, makes me think like they’re younger than me so I should be able to do the things they’re accomplishing.”
Osaka next takes on Caroline Wozniacki, who has been in superb form so far in Beijing.
The Dane booked her place in the last four with a 7-6 6-3 win over Daria Kasatkina, but she may well need to raise her level to greater heights up against Osaka.
The Japanese star is riding an 8-match winning streak after her triumph at her hometown event in Osaka and has won 16 of the last 17 sets she has contested.
Indeed, the only player to take her the distance since the US Open was Andreescu, this year’s champion in New York.
Despite of her excellent run of form, there are causes to be concerned for Osaka as her match against Andreescu was surely taxing mentally and physically and she will need to guard against a let down against Wozniacki, particularly as she has lost both her previous contests with the Dane, although they have not played since 2017.
Osaka has improved considerably since, and with her power, when she is playing with confidence, she can be almost unstoppable.
Meanwhile, Osaka has now officially qualified for the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen, joining Ashleigh Barty, Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep and Andreescu in the field for the year-end championships, slated to run from 27 October – 3 November.
“I am very proud to have qualified for the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen for a second year,” Osaka said.
“There is an amazing atmosphere at this event and to compete on this stage, with the top players of the season, is an honour and a challenge that I’m really looking forward to.”
The WTA Finals marks Osaka’s second consecutive year qualifying for the season-ending event, making her the second-ever Japanese woman to qualify in consecutive years, and first in 25 years when Kimiko Date did so from 1994-96.
In 2015, Osaka competed at and won the WTA Rising Stars Invitational as part of the WTA Finals, introducing fans to the next generation of women’s tennis stars at the WTA’s biggest event of the year.
In the final, Osaka defeated Caroline Garcia on the same stage as the Top 8 singles and doubles players competed for the WTA Finals trophies.
The Finals features the world’s best players vying for a record-breaking US$14 million in prize money and two of the most prestigious titles in women’s tennis.
The Top 8 singles players and doubles teams on the Porsche Race to Shenzhen, which includes 53 WTA tournaments and four Grand Slams, will compete in a round-robin format with the singles champion lifting the Billie Jean King Trophy and the doubles champions earning the WTA Finals Martina Navratilova Trophy.
The winner of the Porsche Race to Shenzhen, the player who finishes in pole position leading into the WTA Finals, will not only seal a spot at the season-ending showpiece, but also be congratulated with a new Porsche.