NEW YORK, USA - Serena Williams' quest for a record-tying 24th major singles title and first title of any kind since returning to the tour after starting a family, once again comes up against a young upstart and reigning Indian Wells champion on a Saturday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Standing in the way of the 38-year-old American this time is 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu, the Canadian phenom who has taken the tour by storm in 2019, and is looking to cap off what would be one of the most stunning debut seasons ever on the WTA Tour.
At 18 years and 263 days, this is the largest gap in age between Slam finalists in the Open Era. Despite the generational gap - Serena won her first Slam title here at the US Open in 1999, before Andreescu was born - the two are already familiar foes. Saturday's final is a rematch of the Rogers Cup final four weeks ago, which ended when Serena was forced to retire due to a back injury and the precocious teen went out of her way to comfort her.
"She really knows how to mix up the game and play different shots in different ways," Serena said. "Above all, I just like her as a person. She's amazing."
While casual tennis fans may be surprised to see the Toronto-native in the final, few who follow the sport are remotely shocked that Andreescu, who has not lost a completed match since March 2nd and is the reigning Indian Wells and Toronto champion, finds herself in her first major final in New York. Andreescu is a battler and she loves the stage, and that is the recipe for success in Flushing Meadows.
"I'm not surprised she's there," Serena's coach Patrick Mouratoglou said. "I expected her in final, and I think she's going to be No. 1 soon because she has everything that's needed to be No. 1. A lot of respect for her.
"A lot of tools in her game, like a really complete game. She has the whole package. She looks incredibly confident. She feels like she's where she belongs. That's the impression she gives."
If Andreescu looks incredibly confident, it is because she is. She's now won 12 consecutive matches on the summer hardcourts and has not lost a completed match since March. Playing in her first US Open main draw, she has been mentally and physically tested in her last three matches, needing three-sets to defeat Taylor Townsend and the partisan American crowd in the Round of 16, three-sets to reel in Elise Mertens in the quarterfinals, and over two hours to complete a signature win over Belinda Bencic, rallying from 2-5 down in the second to seal it in two tough sets.
Earlier in the tournament, Andreescu was asked whether she feels like she has not lost a match in over six months. "I mean, yeah," she said with a grin. "Facts are facts, right? I don't feel like I have lost a match, no.
"It feels pretty good, because you never know what can happen in a match. I'm trying not to take anything for granted right now. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing."
What Andreescu is doing is out-working, out-thinking, and out-hitting her opposition, time and time again with a game that blends power, variety, tactics, and perhaps most importantly, courage. Andreescu plays her bravest tennis when she is down in the scoreline, and her ability to come through tight positions in a match has been proven throughout the season.
En route to a 33-4 record this season, Andreescu has won 14 of 17 three-set matches, including the last 11 three-setters she has played. In her three complete-match losses this season, all came in three sets (l. Goerges, Auckland, l. Sevastova, Australian Open, l. Kenin, Acapulco).
In short, after starting the season ranked No.152, Andreescu has yet to be blown out of a match in 2019, and she has won all seven of her matches against Top 10 players, which also happen to be the first seven matches she has ever played against Top 10 players. She will make her own Top 10 debut on Monday.
Andreescu is looking to become the first Canadian major champion in the Open Era and a win on Saturday would tie Monica Seles for the fastest route from Slam debutante to Slam champion, with Seles winning 1990 Roland Garros in her fourth major appearance. An Andreescu title run would be the fastest since Maria Sharapova won 2004 Wimbledon in her seventh major appearance.
Andreescu has the tools to trouble the Serena Williams that we have seen over the last 18 months of her comeback. But is that the Serena who will take the court on Saturday? All signs seem to point to 'No'.
After working her way back last season - and remarkably making two major finals - Serena's 2019 has been marred with injuries. But she has finally enjoyed a long stretch of injury-free preparation, since before Wimbledon, and now that she's able to have faith in her movement, her all-court game has locked in.
"I felt more prepared this tournament," Serena said. "I mean, Wimbledon I probably had a week to prepare, so that was amazing. Australia, I was super prepared. I did great, then rolled my ankle. I shouldn't have even played the French Open. That was just a bonus just to compete in another Grand Slam.
"I just feel like I actually had time to train. I joked I trained more for Canada than I did for any other tournament this year, which was kind of funny.
"I just had a really tough year with injuries, mostly bad luck. I just needed to get injury-free."
According to Mouratoglou, that faith in her fitness will allow her to withstand the crucible of pressure inherent in a Slam final in New York.
"It's difficult for us to realize, because she was in three finals so you feel she's ready," Mouratoglou said. "But she was in the three finals because she's the best competitor of all times, not because she was ready."
"To be able to deal with pressure, you need to feel strong. If you feel weak or not as strong as you wish you would, it's more difficult to beat the pressure.
"When you don't move well, you can't be as confident as you should be, because if your A game doesn't work, you don't have any other option, and for me that's what happened [in the past finals].
"I think it's a totally different situation now, because now she can move. If she needs to play the rally, she can play the rally. We have seen that I think a few times during the tournament. So there is no panic if she misses a bit more than usual. No problem. There are other options of play.
"You cannot even give her a Plan B when she cannot make the Plan B. So I feel she's so much more confident now because she knows she's ready."
From the start of her tournament against Maria Sharapova in the first round, Serena has looked focused and intense from the first point. Through her six matches, she has been broken just three times - by comparison, she was broken six times heading to the final last year and 11 times heading into the Wimbledon final two months ago.
— WTA (@WTA) September 7, 2019
Serena leads Bianca in all statistical categories bar one - return winners - heading into the final. If she is firing on all cylinders, particularly on the serve, Andreescu could quickly find herself overpowered. But if Serena shows any signs of wavering, look for Andreescu to pounce. Her game is built to test her opponents' nerves, to poke and prod with tactical intelligence and guile, only to pounce with power when her opponent doubts, even for a split second.
If you think Bianca is short on confidence or self-belief, then you don't know Bianca. She has approached every day of this fortnight with a preternatural calm, almost as if she feels like this moment was destined to happen.
And maybe it is.
"I remember actually when I was 16, after I won the Orange Bowl title, I remember I wrote myself a check of this tournament, winning the tournament obviously," Andreescu said. "Ever since that moment, I just kept visualizing that.
"If that can happen on Saturday, then that would be pretty cool."