There was a time when it didn’t take much to get Canadians excited. In 1976, the nation nearly imploded when Greg Joy finished with a silver medal in high jump at the Montreal Olympics. In 1972, Karen Magnussen became a legend in Canada by winning silver in women’s figure skating at the Sapporo Olympics.
When I was on the voting panel of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame for five years, it was easy to keep within the restriction of six new members a year. The nominees were obvious and it made for an easy day’s work to come up with a list.
Those days are gone. If you didn’t think the bar in Canada has been set much, much higher, you only needed to check out the crushed countenance of filmmaker Spike Lee on Saturday at Flushing Meadows in New York City. Bedecked in purple, Lee was there to Do The Right Thing (so shoot me) by Serena Williams, probably the greatest woman tennis player ever.
As the women’s singles final of the U.S. Open unfolded in the late summer sun at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Lee went from fervid fan to guest at a sports funeral. As the inevitability of Williams’ loss sank in, his head sank low, his eyes downcast. After a while, CBS Sports simply gave up showing him or Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Something or Other, who was cheering against one of her husband Prince Harry’s subjects.
Instead, CBS began scanning the seats for Canadians with their ubiquitous Maple Leafs. That was something of a chore in a stadium that was backing Williams by at least 90 per cent. And while there’ll be 100,000 Canadians who’ll claim to have been there to see Serena lunge – and miss – the final bullet from Bianca Andreescu, there were just enough on hand to represent for the CBS lens.
Andreescu’s stunning defenestration of the immortal Serena was instantly declared among the top moments ever for a single Canadian athlete. Sprinter Donovan Bailey’s audacious double gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Mike Weir winning golf’s Masters in 2003. Simon Whitfield winning the gold medal in triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Not much else compares, really.
What sets Andreescu’s triumph above them all will be answered by what she does next.
Bailey tore his achilles tendon before he could defend his gold in Sydney in 2000 (he almost made it). Weir was simply a placeholder in a year where Tiger Woods battled injuries, a plucky winner who lost his swing and then his health. Whitfield stayed an elite athlete but could not duplicate his Olympic gold.
If the teenaged buzz bomb from Mississauga, Ont., fulfils the legacy that so many in the tennis world predict – Williams baldly said Andreescu is the next one – there will be many more such moments. A Wimbledon title? Olympic gold? A Grand Slam?
The way she overwhelmed Williams says the sky is the limit.
Remember, Serena had breezed through the Open, putting aside challengers like so many ball girls who’d just happened to pick up a racket against her. Yes, she’s almost 38, but her immense power, her shot making and her indomitable will remain formidable to any young woman who stands across a court from her.
Then came Bianca.
Of course, Canada got its tennis shorts in a knot this way for Eugenie Bouchard in 2014. When she made the Wimbledon final, she was the Chosen Tennis One. But the attention, the pressure and the wear on her body derailed Bouchard to where her Pinty’s commercials from days gone by are a sour joke.
That’s where Andreescu presumably is different. Perhaps it’s simply her precocity. Perhaps it’s her dramatic style that always seems one injury away from derailing her. Or maybe it’s her mother fussing with the designer clothes and little dog Coco in the players’ box.
Whatever the stage business, Andreescu has it. She’s an alpha performer. You can’t say that about players such as Sloane Stephens (the 2017 women’s champ) or even world No. 1 Naomi Osaka (the 2018 winner). They’re talented world-class tennis players. But no one will tell you they beat you with their minds.
Andreescu has that mettle. If you’re looking for the moment when Williams knew she was in deep trouble against Andreescu, forget anything that happened Saturday (although there were telltale moments then). No, Serena knew she was up against a different cat when she looked up through her veil of tears in Toronto in August to find Bianca consoling her for having to pull the chute in the Rogers Cup final.
With her face in Serena’s grill, she did a profanity-laced fan letter about how great Williams was, how she’d had injuries, too. The temerity! You could see from Serena’s stunned expression that if Andreescu’s nerve was this acute, the Canadian wasn’t going to be intimidated playing her in the Open final in New York City.
So it proved. Even as Serena mounted her furious, futile comeback in the second set, one sensed that Andreescu was simply giving Spike Lee and company a good show, letting them hoot and holler a bit before she brought down the hammer. Williams complained afterward about not playing at all well. But that was due in large measure to the overwhelming pressure applied from the other side of the court.
If Williams was frustrated and gassed (truly she can’t go three sets against elite players any longer) she has Andreescu to thank. But she’ll have to get in line as 37 million Canadians want to thank her first.
Postscript: Despite what you’re hearing, Andreescu is not the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam title. Daniel Nestor has won eight Grand Slam titles in men’s doubles and four more in mixed doubles at all the majors in his career. He’s 10th in history for most men’s ATP titles. Credit due.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.