TORONTO — After only 19 minutes and a great deal of buildup, Serena Williams retired in the first set of the Rogers Cup final after falling behind by 3-1 to the Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu.
The sudden end to the match, which featured Williams seeking her first title of 2019 and Andreescu trying to become the first Canadian in 50 years to win the event, stunned the 8,000-person crowd at center court.
The abrupt decision surprised even Andreescu. But after speaking to a trainer between games, Williams informed the chair umpire of her decision to retire, citing back spasms.
“It started yesterday in my match and it just got worse,” Williams told reporters later, referencing her semifinal win over Marie Bouzková. “Just my whole back just completely spasmed, and to a point where I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t really move. And so I was just trying to figure out, how do you play a match where you have no rotation?”
Williams managed to defeat Bouzková, a qualifier, in three sets, but against the 19-year-old Andreescu, she clearly looked out of sorts. Williams made several errors, including two double faults, and her first-serve percentage was only 39 percent, with her serve topping out at just 118 miles per hour.
Williams said she was still planning to go to Cincinnati this week for the Western & Southern Open, which is the final hardcourt tuneup for the U.S. Open. She’s hoping that, as in the past, her back spasms will gradually disappear.
Williams said she never considered getting treatment on court in hopes that the back would loosen up because, she said, “I know my body.” While she has played many matches while injured, “this was different.”
She said she could move her lower body but couldn’t do anything with her upper body, making it difficult to serve. Despite going through hours of treatment for the back spasms, she knew quickly that she wouldn’t be able to continue.
“I’ve had this before and it’s, like, 24, 36 hours where I’m just in crazy spasm and then it’s like gone,” Williams said. “And so that’s a little bit frustrating for me because I know that I could play. I just can’t play today.”
After Williams retired, Andreescu walked over to her chair and the two shared a hug and some tears, which evolved into some encouragement and laughter.
“I watched you throughout your whole career,” Andreescu told Williams. “You’re a freaking beast.”
Williams responded by congratulating Andreescu and told her: “This isn’t the way you wanted to win, I’m sure.”
Andreescu, who was born in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, then addressed her hometown crowd.
“I’m feeling weird right now,” she said. “I’m so sorry she had to go out this way. But sometimes you can’t push your body. I wish her a fast recovery.”
Going into the Rogers Cup final, the match had the makings of a classic. With Williams, 37, facing Andreescu, a teenager, it was the giant against the giant killer. Old versus young. U.S.A. versus Canada. Before the final, tournament director Karl Hale called it a “dream scenario.”
It didn’t turn out that way, with Andreescu claiming the trophy after less than 20 minutes of play.
By winning her second career WTA Tour title of her young career, after a stunning victory at Indian Wells in March, Andreescu became the first Canadian in 50 years to capture this event, following Faye Urban, who won in 1969.
Williams is a three-time champion of the Rogers Cup, having won in 2001, 2011 and 2013.
But she remains without a title of any kind since giving birth to her daughter, Olympia, on Sept. 1, 2017. She has failed to capitalize on three Grand Slam finals appearances in that time, losing two Wimbledon finals and one U.S. Open final.
Her last Grand Slam victory was at the 2017 Australian Open, when she was close to two months pregnant. This year, she got to the Australian Open quarterfinals and to the Wimbledon finals.
Williams, ranked No. 10 in the world, was trying to take an important step toward tying Margaret Court’s record with 24 Grand Slam singles titles later this month at the U.S. Open.
Williams, who has been working hard on her conditioning this season, looked in good form all week as she struck a tournament-high 31 aces coming into the final.
Her best performance was in the quarterfinals on Friday. when she coasted by Naomi Osaka in straight sets, winning the rematch after they met in a combustible U.S. Open final last year.
While Williams was rarely pushed this week, Andreescu had gone the distance in four of her five matches, and the workload appeared to be a factor in her sustaining a groin injury in the quarterfinals. She took treatment after the match, and her right thigh was heavily bandaged for the final.
“When I felt my groin in the quarters, it was pretty bad,” Andreescu said. “I felt it a lot. But the taping helped after I saw the physio. I wasn’t going to pull out of the quarterfinals of the Rogers Cup because I could walk totally fine.”
Andreescu, whose family is Romanian, was the lowest-ranked finalist since Sorana Cirstea (also No. 27) lost to Williams in the 2013 final.
Before this year, few in Canada even knew who Andreescu was. This country’s tennis hopes rested on Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard.
Twelve months ago, Andreescu was ranked outside the top 200, but made a breakthrough came at Indian Wells in March when, as a wild card, she won the title over the No. 8 seed, Angelique Kerber, in three sets.
Andreescu’s astonishing win made headlines across the tennis world and she became a media sensation in Canada. But a shoulder injury soon after threatened to derail her season. Coming into the Toronto tournament, she hadn’t played since late May.
On the way to the final, she beat No. 5 Kiki Bertens and No. 3 seed Karolina Pliskova and was 6-0 this season against top-10 players, a record she ran to 7-0 with the win over Williams.
When the rankings come out Monday, Osaka will be the new No. 1, while Williams is projected to move up from No. 10 to No. 8, which would be her highest ranking since returning to action in March 2018.
Andreescu will break into the top 20 for the first time, with projections having her at No. 14.