INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - The 2019 WTA season has been all about the clash of generations, and the trend continues Sunday, when reigning Wimbledon Champion Angelique Kerber squares off against 18-year-old Canadian sensation Bianca Andreescu in the first Premier Mandatory final of the season at the BNP Paribas Open.
In the two biggest finals of the season so far, it was 21-year-old Naomi Osaka getting the better of Petra Kvitova in Melbourne, and 22-year-old Belinda Bencic also besting Kvitova in the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships last month. Will youth reign supreme again in Indian Wells with an Andreescu win? Or will Kerber re-assert herself to win her first Premier Mandatory title?
The Andreescu Ascendency
Andreescu's Cinderella story has been well-documented but it's worth summarizing again to underline just how extraordinary her 2019 season and run to her first Premier Mandatory final, in just her second Premier Mandatory appearance, has been. A talented junior, the Ontario-native was ranked as low as No.243 last October and began the 2019 season outside the Top 150.
Indian Wells is just her 5th tournament of the season (including her title run at the WTA 125K series event in Newport Beach) and she will rise to No.33 by making the final and could head to the Miami Open inside the Top 25 if she lifts the trophy on Sunday. Across all levels (including qualifying and Fed Cup), the teen has won 27 matches to just 3 losses this year. No one has won more matches this year.
While a bulk of Andreescu's wins have come on the lower levels or International events, she has repeatedly proven her mettle against the tour's best. In Auckland she scored wins over Caroline Wozniacki, Venus Williams, Hsieh-Su-Wei, and had a look to defeat Julia Goerges in the final. But in Indian Wells she has knocked off four seeds to become the first wildcard to advance to the Indian Wells final.
Andreescu's dominant win in the quarterfinals over Garbiñe Muguruza, winning 6-0, 6-1, was a showcase of her pure talent. Her hard-fought 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 win over No.6 Elina Svitolina - which saw her save was a showcase of her heart. Under pressure against one of the tour's toughest competitors, Andreescu saved 9 of 10 break points in the final set, including digging out of 0-40 and 15-40 holes in her final two service games to close out the match.
Indian Wells is only the 8th main draw appearance for Andreescu (18 years, 274 days) and she is the youngest Indian Wells Finalist since 2001, when Kim Clijsters (17 years, 283 days) finished as a finalist.
Andreescu has struck the perfect balance between humility and ambition. She has been overwhelmed and stunned by her rapid rise, but also believes she can win multiple Slams and reach No.1. She says this all in the same breath, breathlessly.
Andreescu is the youngest player to reach a Premier Mandatory final, and should she continue her history-making run on Sunday, Andreescu would be the youngest Indian Wells champion since Serena Williams in 1999 and the fourth youngest ever.
YOUNGEST INDIAN WELLS CHAMPIONS.
Serena Williams - 1999 - 17 yrs, 169 days
Martina Hingis - 1998 - 17 yrs, 166 days
Monica Seles - 1992 - 18 yrs, 90 days
Daniela Hantuchova - 2002 - 18 yrs, 327 days
Maria Sharapova - 2006 - 18 yrs, 333 days
Kerber Keeping the Kids at Bay
Angelique Kerber's game is designed to withstand the plucky upstart. The 31-year-old German has found her footing on hardcourts again, after a slight stall to the start the season. Her four losses this year, to Kvitova (Sydney), Collins (Australian Open), Mertens (Doha), and Hsieh (Dubai), were not necessarily shockers in result but in scoreline. In her last two tournaments, her two losses ended in 6-1, and 6-0 deciding sets. That's an uncharacteristic let-down by one of the tour's grittiest fighters.
Credit to Kerber for not panicking. After her successful 2018 season, which saw her rebound from her 2017 let-down to win her third major at Wimbledon and qualify for the WTA Finals, Kerber split with coach Wim Fissette and brought on former ATP player Rainer Schuettler. Her early results were disappointing, but Kerber says she knew it was just a matter of time.
"I'm already going through up-and-downs, and I know already how it feels like to losing matches, having not your best day, and trying to handle the situation.
"Of course you have always sometimes a little bit of panic but not like you don't know what to do. It's just like going on court again, going your way, and working hard. I think this is always the best you can do."
"It needed a little bit of time to get used to all the things before the matches, after the matches, during the [practice] sessions and everything.
"I know that I can play good tennis, but everything around has to be also good. I think now everybody knows how the other person is thinking, and he knows how I am before the matches, also after the matches, during the matches. I think it was really important, the last few weeks, for both of us."
That faith paid off. Kerber has turned the tables here in the desert. Down 4-1 in the third and lookig down and out to Aryna Sabalenka in the Round of 16, she dug in and came back to win the next five games. Against Venus Williams in the quarterfinals, Kerber refused to let the American's unpredictable gameplan unwind and frustrate her. And then, coming up against Belinda Bencic's 12-match win-streak, Kerber doused the red-hot Swiss, winning 6-4, 6-2.
As a result, Kerber finds herself in her first Premier Mandatory final of her storied career, an odd glitch in her resume that she's now filled. Now she looks to hold off another streaking youngster in Andreescu, and Kerber has proven she's more than up to the challenge on the biggest stages. In fact, she has not lost a Premier or higher final since 2016.
Sunday will be Kerber's 29th championship match - in contrast, it will be Andreescu's second at the tour level - and she has now reached at least one final at each level:
Premier 5: 3
Premier Mandatory: 1 (Indian Wells 2019)
Grand Slams: 4
WTA Finals: 1
Olympic Games: 1
If Kerber wins her first title since 2018 Wimbledon on Sunday, she will overtake Kvitova to rise to No.2 in the rankings on Monday.