Young American women are leading the charge at the US Open, as Taylor Townsend and Coco Gauff stole the headlines on Thursday in New York.
It’s just confirmation more for myself that I’m on the right path, doing the right things. You keep your head down and keep working and you see what happens Taylor Townsend
Reigning Wimbledon champion and former World No 1 Simona Halep was shocked by the 23-year-old Townsend at Flushing Meadows, where the Romanian was defeated, 2-6 6-3 7-6(4), to crash out of the competition; while 15-year-old CoCo Gauff had the home crowd behind her at Louis Armstrong Stadium during her 6-2 4-6 6-4 win over Timea Babos of Hungary to advance to the third round.
“I never played with someone coming so often to the net,” Halep said. “I didn’t miss much. It’s unbelievable.”
The left-handed Townsend came in as a qualifier, ranked 116 in the world, and, most unusually, serving and volleying her way to victory.
She saved a match point and charged the net a total 106 times during the match, like a player from a bygone age when everyone rushed the net and most majors were played on grass courts.
“I mean, this means a lot. It’s been a long journey. Just haven’t been able to get over the hump,” Townsend said after scoring her first win over a top 10 player.
Townsend was once the top junior in the world, back in 2012 when she won both the singles and doubles junior titles at the Australian Open.
“This was a huge, monumental moment [for me],” Townsend said after her match. “It was a very defining moment for me to realise that I belong here.
“It’s been, like, a really long journey,” Townsend said to media in her news conference. “You flood with emotions of the things you’ve been through, positive, negative.
“It’s just confirmation more for myself that I’m on the right path, doing the right things. You keep your head down and keep working and you see what happens.”
Townsend, a Chicago native who trains in Atlanta, has had a bumpy path, with USTA officials refusing to cover her travel expenses for the 2012 US Open because they thought she was too heavy to compete, resulting in an uproar from the news media and continued scrutiny of her physique.
She made her Grand Slam debut at the French Open the next year and reached the 3rd round, but did not win another 2nd-round match at a Grand Slam until Thursday, more than 6 years later.
To reach the main draw in New York this year, Townsend had to play through the qualifying draw, which she said lit a fire under her.
“It’s been a long road, a lot of haters, a lot of people who weren’t sure,” she added. “I’ve heard it for a really long time that I was never going to make it, that I wasn’t going to be able to break through or do this or do that.”
Townsend said that she had learned to embrace ‘being able to prove people wrong’, and that she had needed time to mature and become comfortable with herself.
“Some of you guys I’ve known literally since I was 15, 16 years old,” she said as she scanned a room of reporters after her win. “It’s insane. But it’s just growth as a person.
“I think that’s the beauty of this sport, that you can watch people from such a young age kind of develop as people and players.”
Townsend has struggled to use her unusually multi-faceted game in a way that would allow her to consistently play top-flight tennis.
She grew up watching old footage of a fellow lefty, Martina Navratilova, and tilted her game more toward the net than anyone else would even consider in the sport these days.
She took the strategy farther than she had ever dared before and the gamble paid off as Townsend finally beat a top-10 opponent on her 11th try.
“I think it was really great confirmation that this style of play works, that I can continue to do it,” Townsend said.
“I’ve played her 3 other times. It wasn’t like it was any mystery going into the match. Obviously she’s coming off a lot of confidence. She won Wimbledon. She’s very match-tough.
“I mean, honestly, like I said on court, I feel like a lot of the times when I was playing her, I played, like, not to lose.
“A player like that, she’s just way too solid, has had so much experience, that’s not going to fly.
“I mean, I was just, like, what do you have to lose? I’m just going to go for it, I’m going to do what I do best where I’m the most comfortable, which is at the net.
“I won a lot of points. I lost points. I lost big points. But I was rewarded in the end. That’s what was most satisfying.”
Playing in her first match since Wimbledon, the American had to battle through 3 rounds of qualifying en route to her clash with Halep.
The road to the main draw was anything but easy, with Townsend having to rally from behind against Veronica Cepede Royg and Nina Stojanovic in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, and then she had to battle back again in her 1st-round clash with Kateryna Kozlova, going the distance on Court 7 to win 3-6 6-3 6-2.
Out on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the biggest court in tennis, Townsend once again got off to a slow start against Halep, who has scored comfortable straight-sets wins against the American in all of their previous meetings.
The first set was all going Halep’s way as Townsend struggled to find an inroad past the Romanian’s rock solid defence.
Still, she had Halep under pressure from the start, and the No 4 seed had to save a pair of break points to hold for 1-1.
Halep re-grouped to break twice and reeled off the last 5 games in a row to ease through the opening set 6-2.
Townsend, however, stuck to her game-plan and rushed to the net at every opportunity, taking away time from her opponent with smart volleying.
The American finally broke Halep to start the set with a 2-0 lead, and held her nerve to stay in front after the pair traded breaks, 3-1, staying on serve to take the match into a decider, 6-3.
As Halep’s frustration grew, so did Townsend’s focus, and the American rushed the net once more to earn a break to love at 3-2.
She fended off a trio of break-back points to extend her lead, and powered ahead to match points at 5-4.
For the first time since her 2nd-set surge, the nerves seemed to finally catch up with the qualifier, and unforced errors cost her a pair of match points.
Halep fought her way back from 40-15 down, and broke Townsend to force a tiebreak, but Townsend recouped just in time, and edged through the decider to close out the 2nd-round stunner.
“I’ve always came to the net,” Townsend said. “Ever since I started playing tennis, I was always more comfortable at the net than the baseline.
“You have strengths, but you have to be solid from a certain point because these players are just too good. The level only gets higher.
“I think it was really great confirmation that this style of play works, that I can continue to do it.”
Halep observed: “I really think that she played great. She was very inspired of every ball. She came a lot to the net and didn’t miss much. It’s unbelievable.
“Also my return was weak because I couldn’t feel the rhythm of a lefty.
“I don’t know, was not very strong the serve, but the ball was moving too much and I couldn’t have the feeling, the touch.
“Then I think I played a little bit wrong tactic. Maybe I should have hit more lobs when she was coming.
“She was very close to the net. I was not inspired at all today, but I fought.
“I thought when I came back that I will take it and I will win it. But sometimes it goes the other way.
“She played really well. She really deserved to win it because she gave everything and she didn’t think of losing. She went all the way with 100% belief.”
In addition to her impressive net stats, Townsend was solid from the ground against Halep, firing 42 winners and keeping her opponent’s count contained to 23 across three sets.
Townsend kept a positive differential with 39 unforced errors, to Halep’s 23.
“I played few times against her, and I knew how she’s playing,” Halep told press afterward. “But today she changed.
“She went for all the balls to the net. So it was a little bit different.
“At one point I lost the rhythm in the second set, and I didn’t really know what I have to change. Even the touch, I didn’t have it.”
Into the third round of the US Open for the first time, the American will take on another Romanian in her next match after Sorana Cirstea defeated Aliona Bolsova 3-6 6-4 6-2 earlier in the day to advance.
Alongside Halep’s premature departure, Petra Kvitova, the No 6 seed from the Czech Republic was taken out by Germany’s Andrea Petkovic, 6-4 6-4, and Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, the 9th seed, lost to her friend Yulia Putinseva from Kazakstan, 6-3 7-6(3).