Twenty-four hours after arguably the greatest player in the history of tennis held Toronto in thrall for the final time, it was the turn of arguably Canada’s greatest player to hold court Thursday.
Just like Serena Williams, however, Bianca Andreescu, the only Grand Slam singles champion that this country has produced, was unable to make the most of her appearance in the 7 p.m. ET prime time slot, dropping her last-16 match against Qinwen Zheng of China, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2.
Having beaten Rebecca Marino in the first round, Zheng eliminated a Canadian for the second time in three matches on Thursday. She now faces a quarter-final against Karolina Pliskova, after the Czech 14th seed upset the third-seeded Maria Sakkari earlier in the day.
As she had in each of the first two rounds, the unseeded Andreescu was pushed to the full three sets against Zheng, the world No. 51, playing in her first National Bank Open. Having taken six months off over the winter to work on her mental health, the 22-year-old Canadian is still trying to find the form that once propelled her to No. 4 in the world.
After the exit of Leylah Fernandez on Wednesday, the Mississauga, Ont., native represented the last hope for a first homegrown winner of this tournament since the-then teenager outlasted Serena Williams to claim the title in 2019, the most recent time this tournament was held in Toronto. The event has been on hiatus the past two years owing to the pandemic.
While Sobeys Stadium was much less raucous than it had been the prior evening, with a number of empty seats dotted around the 12,500-seat Centre Court, a number of Canadian sports figures were on hand to cheer on the 2019 U.S. Open champion. With the Toronto Blue Jays enjoying a rare day off, Bo Bichette and Santiago Espinal were both relaxing in the stands, while Olympic gold-medalist sprinter Andre De Grasse was also in attendance.
In sharp contrast to the perfect summer evening that had been the backdrop to Williams’s Toronto curtain call though, a blustery wind swirled around the facility, having made life difficult for many of the sport’s top players throughout the day.
American teen Coco Gauff and her opponent Aryna Sabalenka had combined for 31 double faults in their match earlier on Thursday, while world No. 1 and top seed Iga Swiatek made an uncharacteristic nine in her upset loss to Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia in the match preceding Andreescu’s.
But in the first career meeting between current world No. 53 Andreescu, and Zheng, ranked two places higher, the Canadian could draw comfort from her 9-2 career record in this tournament, and came into the contest on the back of eight straight victories here. The nine total wins represent the second most by a Canadian, trailing only the 15 claimed by Helen Kelesi.
Looking far from overawed, the 19-year-old Zheng began the match with an ace on her first serve. However, almost from that point on she struggled with her serve, landing her first service less than 50 per cent of the time, while both players repeatedly dealt with wayward tosses.
Showing some of the killer instinct that was resplendent a few years ago, Andreescu wasted little time taking advantage, breaking Zheng following an eight-minute first game, and seemingly holding the upper hand for the first half of the opening set.
But three straight breaks of serve knotted the score at 4-4, and after both held serve for the next three games, the onus was on Andreescu to do so once more to force a first-set tiebreak. Zheng had other ideas though, placing a perfect drop shot to draw level at 30-30, before an unforced error from Andreescu handed her opponent a set point, an opportunity she took convincingly with an overhead smash.
The second set held much less drama than the opener, with both players holding serve through the first 10 games. The 11th game saw the pendulum swing Andreescu’s way, however, as Zheng’s serve collapsed completely, allowing the Canadian to jump in front and convert just the third break point she had all set.
Andreescu promptly closed out the set with a relatively comfortable service game as a Zheng forehand sailed over the baseline to send the match to a deciding set. However, failure to hold serve once again proved costly there, with Zheng breaking the Canadian three more times on her way to clinching a spot in the last eight.