The first thing you’ll notice about Bianca Andreescu is how hard she hits the ball. The second thing you’ll notice is the verve with which she does it. On Saturday, in the U.S. Open final, Andreescu faced Serena Williams in front of a crowd so loud that, at one point, it compelled her to cover her ears. And still! The Canadian played like a fireball, bludgeoning strokes and fist-pumping wildly and punctuating big moments with come ons that could be heard clear across the East River back in Manhattan. She took the first set quickly; after squandering a double-break lead in the second, she stood ramrod straight against the momentum generated by a surging Williams and the Arthur Ashe Stadium fans trying to will their beloved champion into the match. In the end, Andreescu wouldn’t give away a set. The final was over in a blink and a half, 6-3, 7-5.
Here are some facts about Andreescu that remain impressive no matter how many times they’re repeated: She recently turned 19. She’s the first Canadian ever to win a major singles title. She’s now won eight matches against top-10 players without a loss. This was her first appearance in the main draw of the U.S. Open, and her fourth appearance in a major at all.
Just a year removed from Naomi Osaka’s breakthrough 2018, Andreescu has put together a rise of equal velocity. Like Osaka last season, Andreescu announced herself with a win in Indian Wells and then, also like Osaka, she became the first player from her country to win a major by winning in New York. But Osaka had been a mainstay in main draws at slams since 2016. She was a presence on tour before she emerged as a contender. This year, Andreescu shot directly from Single-A to the majors. In 2018, there wasn’t a major at which she made it through qualifying. Now, she’s the titleholder at three tournaments of note. (She also captured the Canadian Open, another Masters event, in August.) She began the year ranked 178th in the world. On Monday, she’ll be ranked fifth. To describe the speed of her ascension would require a word beyond meteoric.
Andreescu’s triumph cemented her as a fixture in the future of women’s tennis. The next wave, at long last, feels imminent. On the men’s side, too, a bright young talent broke out over the last two weeks in Flushing Meadows. And while Daniil Medvedev didn’t walk away a champion, his performance in this tournament won’t soon be forgotten. He did what no other young challenger before him had done: On the biggest stage, he made one of the legends who sits atop the men’s tour seem mortal.
Rafael Nadal also won a slam, his cherished French Open, in his main draw debut. He started the 2005 season ranked outside of the top 50; he ended it ranked second in the world. Even—perhaps especially—when pitted against top players, he never gave an inch. When an opponent made a run, Nadal seemed to take personal offense. His forehand appeared to defy physics. His willpower defied conventional wisdom.
Fourteen years on, it’s harder to be surprised by the things Nadal does on the court; whatever deal he made with the devil to get another half-step to run down balls has been accepted for more than a decade. He produces countless moments like this, that feel impossible to comprehend on first watch. These types of shots explain the dilemma facing modern men’s tennis: It seems to be exploring the outer reaches of our abilities to consume the same thing over and over.
Enter Medvedev, an unlikely challenger with the legs of Novak Djokovic, the height of an NBA player, and the energy of an internet troll. Medvedev checks a lot of the same boxes as the rest of the upcoming generation on the men’s tour: At 6-foot-6, he’s taller than any player who has ever held the world no. 1 ranking. He has a big serve and surprisingly impressive touch and mobility. Like his peers, the 23-year-old has also spent his whole career caught in the wash of the Nadal-Federer-Djokovic yacht, and has only recently managed to come up for air.
Through Wimbledon, Medvedev was a solid, if relatively anonymous, member of the top 20. Then he started eating the competition alive. He reached the finals of the U.S. Open’s three biggest tune-up tournaments in Washington, D.C., Montreal, and Cincinnati. He lost the first two to Nick Kyrgios (in a tight two-tiebreak match) and Nadal (in a rout). In Ohio, he beat David Goffin in straight sets to claim his first Masters shield. Then he took a plane to New York and became the tour’s much-needed heel.
Seeded fifth, Medvedev found himself in a tight third-round match against the Spanish veteran Feliciano Lopez. At one point during the first set, he frustratedly snatched a towel away from a ballkid. When the crowd booed, Medvedev gave them the finger. He was heckled for the rest of the night and fined $9,000 for visible obscenity and unsportsmanlike conduct.
“I want all of you to know, when you go to sleep at night, I won because of you,” he said in his on-court interview. “The energy you’re giving me right now, guys, I think it will be enough for my five next matches. The more you do this, the more I will win, for you guys.”
Our young antihero used that energy to take down Dominik Koepfer, Stan Wawrinka, and Grigor Dimitrov en route to the final, but he did not become the only man currently under 30 to win a major title. He fought valiantly on Sunday in one of the most gripping matches of the Big Three era, running down more balls than anybody could’ve expected and earning the crowd’s respect and admiration. After going down two sets and a break, Medvedev dug in his heels and broke back before winning the third set. Somehow, while battling through 20-shot points in a massive hole, he took the fourth as well. The heavily pro-Nadal stadium began chanting his name.
To put this into context: Before this match, only one other man in the under-30 group had even won a set in a major final: Dominic Thiem, during his thrashing at the hands of Nadal in this year’s French Open. Before Sunday, not only had every young player fallen short, but no young player had ever been close at a major final.
Medvedev, though, gave Nadal all he could handle while playing from behind the entire night. The match, which looked to be over after its first two hours, ended up just five minutes shy of becoming the longest final in U.S. Open history, at four hours and 49 minutes. What seemed like it would be a rout turned into a slugfest: 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4.
After the match, Medvedev looked to the crowd and said, “Earlier in the tournament I said this in a bad way. Now I’m saying it in a good way ... because of you guys, I was fighting like hell.”
Once, a Wall Street Journal editor asked his boss about the preparation of an obituary for Rupert Murdoch, as is regular procedure at newspapers for public figures, even those seemingly far from death. “Rupert is not going to die,” the editor was told. When he clarified again, wanting to know about the plan in the event that Murdoch did unexpectedly die, he was told again: “Rupert is not going to die.”
Trying to wrap your head around modern tennis, men’s tennis in particular, has felt a lot like being that Journal editor. The superstars at the top have reigned for so long that it’s hard to remember how this usually works. The question is no longer what comes next—it’s if next will ever come at all.
Nadal’s win over Medvedev brings him within one major title of Roger Federer’s all-time mark of 20. Surely, this matters to partisans and the players alike. Djokovic has been explicit about his desire to chase down the record, and the numbers must weigh on both Nadal and Federer as they race each other into eternity.
Matches like this weekend’s, though, show that those history-making numbers often come at the expense of something else. In Saturday’s final, Serena was chasing a record of her own, Margaret Court’s mark of 24 major singles titles. (It’s important to note that Court won half her majors before the Open Era, in a time when professionals were locked out of competition.) But Andreescu’s win didn’t feel like a player depriving the world of history; it felt like a revelation. The women’s tour after Serena will not be starved of fun or star power. But it’s generally been hard to imagine the men’s tour after the Big Three feeling like anything.
Sunday was a step toward changing that. There might be something coming next, after all. Medvedev lost, but gave the future of men’s tennis reason to believe. The present, eventually, will pass. And tomorrow might feel good.