It will be the teen prodigy Bianca Andreescu against the former teen prodigy Belinda Bencic in the semifinals of the United States Open on Thursday night.
Neither has been this deep into a Grand Slam tournament before, and Andreescu, a 19-year-old from Canada, had never even played a main-draw match at the U.S. Open until this year.
“This is honestly so crazy,” the 15th-seeded Andreescu said after her 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 quarterfinal victory over Elise Mertens on Wednesday night. “A year ago, I was in the qualifying round. I remember I was suffering from a back injury, and now what I’ve accomplished this year, I’m honestly speechless. I need someone to pinch me right now. Is this real life? Is this real life?”
Her remarkable run and remarkable rise this season are 100 percent real.
Not long after the Toronto Raptors conquered the N.B.A. for their first title, Andreescu has a chance to become the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title.
“It hasn’t really entered my mind, but that would be pretty awesome,” Andreescu said.
Andreescu has a genuine challenge in front of her in the semifinals in the 13th-seeded Bencic, a prodigious talent from Switzerland, who secured her spot with a 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory over her good friend Donna Vekic on Wednesday afternoon.
Andreescu and Bencic are daughters of immigrants; Andreescu’s parents are originally from Romania; Bencic’s are from Slovakia.
Both players have defeated plenty of bigger stars with much longer résumés in 2019. Both have all-court games that can give tennis purists the chills and their opponents the shakes.
But only one of them will get to play in the U.S. Open final on Saturday, quite possibly against Serena Williams, the 37-year-old American icon, who will face a tough test of her own against No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina in Thursday night’s first semifinal.
“At this point, I think anyone can win the tournament; the other semifinalists are incredible athletes,” Andreescu said. “Hopefully I can do good things tomorrow.”
Bencic certainly has the skills to disrupt Andreescu’s game, just as she disrupted the defending champion and No. 1 seed Naomi Osaka’s game in the fourth round, beating her for the third time this season.
“I practiced with her once in Toronto,” Andreescu said of her recent session with Bencic. “I found that she takes the ball really early. She likes to be very aggressive. She has a very good serve and she moves pretty well, too. So I’m going to do my best to just focus on myself mainly and just keep doing what I’m doing because I think my game is throwing off a lot of players.”
Andreescu is 7-0 against top 10 players this season and 13-3 in three-set matches. Ranked No. 178 at the end of last season, she is about to break into the top 10 and has not lost a completed match since March. That statistic is misleading because she missed significant playing time with a rotator cuff injury, including most of the clay-court season and all of the grass-court season.
She is on quite a roll again after winning the Rogers Cup in Toronto, her hometown. She prevailed in the final after Williams retired with a back injury when trailing by 3-1.
Andreescu’s form has fluctuated in New York, particularly in her last two matches, both played in the cavernous confines of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
But she is not only a remarkable talent with a varied game, explosive footwork and baseline power. She is also a scrapper, and she managed to work her way out of a corner against Mertens, who started the match in a deep, counterpunching groove.
“I just told myself to keep fighting and hope that I can switch things around,” Andreescu said.
The turning point came early in the second set, with Andreescu serving at 2-2 and 15-30. Mertens hit a shot deep into the corner. Andreescu took a huge swipe at the ball in extension and threw up a towering lob that might have met with resistance if the Ashe Stadium roof had not been open.
It landed, finally, on the opposite baseline and Andreescu ended up winning the point. Instead of facing two break points at 15-40, it was 30-30. She went on to hold serve and change the flow of the match, winning five straight games.
“Sometimes it just takes a point and a shot like that to change things around,” said her coach, Sylvain Bruneau, late Wednesday night, taking a quick break from answering his scores of new text messages.
“You wouldn’t believe how many of these I’m getting,” he said.
Bencic and her camp have been through something similar.
At age 17, when she reached the quarterfinals at the 2014 U.S. Open with a surprisingly sophisticated game, it looked as if deeper runs were right around the corner.
But plenty can knock a young prodigy back, which is a good reason to fight the urge to expect 15-year-old Coco Gauff or Andreescu to zoom straight to the top.
Bencic is wiser for the wait.
“People tend to think I’m older than I actually am,” she said.
She is 22 now, no longer a wunderkind, but she is ready to fulfill her promise after reaching the top 10 as a teenager and then dropping out of the top 300 because of wrist surgery.
“You take it for granted and then when you can’t play, you miss it so much,” she said. “I’m enjoying my tennis so much now.”
Though Vekic defeated her on clay at the French Open, Bencic is at her best with true bounces on hardcourts, where she can lock in her timing.
The biggest change in her game of late has been the serve. Fitter and stronger in the lower body, she is generating new power and penetration. She struck seven aces against Vekic and won 84 percent of her first-serve points.
The serve is also what separates Bencic’s game from that of her longtime mentor Martina Hingis, who won five Grand Slam singles titles in her teens only to be usurped by the rise of the Williams sisters in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Bencic, whose game was developed by Hingis’s mother and coach, Melanie Molitor, said that she lacked some of Hingis’s chess master’s qualities but possessed more power — a vital component to success in this era.
Above all she counters other’s power very effectively, be it in the backcourt or the forecourt and she is now the first Swiss woman since Hingis in 2001 to reach the final four at the US Open.
“I worked hard for this,” she said. “It’s not like I never imagined I could do this. Still, I stayed in the moment, a very nice feeling.”
Andreescu is trying to avoid getting ahead of herself, too. A longtime practitioner of meditation and visualization, she said that morning routine had been a key to her success this year in new situations against veteran opposition.
“I think if you can control your mind, you can control a lot of things, and I think that’s what’s been working really well for me,” she said. “I’ve just kept doing that, and when I’m on the court in front of these big stages, I’m really good at just blocking everything and staying in the zone.”
It won’t get easier from here, not with Canadians and others realizing just what kind of talent they are dealing with.
Bruneau, a calming presence in the players box, understands the dangers better now after being part of Eugenie Bouchard’s support team in 2014, when she broke new ground for Canada at age 20 by reaching the final at Wimbledon and hitting No. 5 in the rankings. She is now outside the top 100.
“We just need to be calm about it, and not get too excited,” Bruneau said. “And believe me, it’s exciting, but at some point you need to take a step back and say, listen, this is something we would like to see keep happening for a few years, so we need to just be very poised, keep our heads down and keep doing what she needs to do.”