The way Taylor Townsend has stormed through the first week of the U.S. Open is not just surprising but downright medieval. She rushes the net! She pressures and intimidates, stirring up the potent old alchemy that was a forerunner to modern tennis chemistry.
Hers is a strategy that hasn’t been seen for years. Decades. Eschewing the now-standard baseline game, Townsend suddenly, at 23 and after a long spell of relative invisibility, is waking some echoes of 2012, when she was the world’s top-ranked junior.
And one result, she said, is: “I didn’t know so many people had my phone number.”
On Saturday, she got more plaudits from the involved Louis Armstrong crowd by going to the net 75 times during a 7-5, 6-2 victory over 29-year-old Romanian Sorana Cirstea. That came two days after Townsend chased a far more accomplished Romanian, reigning Wimbledon champ Simona Halep, out of the tournament by going to the net 106 times over three sets.
Compare that another third-round match Saturday afternoon, when 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu of Canada, the No. 15 seed, defeated two-time Open runner-up and former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, 6-4, 6-4. Andreescu and Wozniacki approached the net a total of 35 times. Combined.
(There were no statistics in the other scheduled afternoon third-rounder, in which No. 13 seed Belinda Bencic of Switzerland advanced by walkover when No. 21 Anett Kontaveit of Estonia defaulted because of illness.)
In the old days, players regularly preferred the serve-and-volley style, former champ Billie Jean King noted, because “three-quarters of our majors were played on grass. The grass was so bad you never wanted the ball to bounce so you volleyed a lot. Ha. On those courts, you would have been serving and volleying, too.”
But in this age of even surfaces and a more powerful, precise tennis racket, which facilitates the passing shot, it generally is accepted that rushing the net is a high-risk maneuver. In fact, Townsend occasionally stranded herself in the first set, pushing forward only to watch Cirstea’s winning shots wave as they went by.
But when it mattered most, with Cirstea serving at 5-5, Townsend’s attack mode twice pressured Cirstea into netting shots. And, once she had that service break, Townsend executed four consecutive serve-and-volley points to wrap on the set and launch into first major-tournament fourth round in her 17th Slam appearance.
“I mean, I remember when I was grinding quallies [qualifying tournaments]….when I quit tennis for three days; that’s how long I lasted,” Townsend said. “But when my ranking went from 90 to 400, literally over the course of a day, I went from being main draw of Slams to quallies. Losing. I went one year and won four matches in a calendar year. So I’m appreciative of where I am.”
Tennis, she said, is “a game where you win and lose points constantly. So it’s just about how you manage those things.”
The to-the-net ploy, she admitted, can be “difficult” for both her and her opponent because, “for me to do it, I got passed a lot. But I made a lot [of volleys]. And, on her side, it’s taking time away. It’s less time for her to think.
“So, I’m up there.” At the net.
Notes & quotes: The Open’s ultimate local, Kristie Ahn of Flushing Meadows, has made it to the fourth round after a 6-3, 7-5 victory over Jelena Ostapenko. Ahn, 27, first played in the Open in 2008, losing in the first round. Ahn, ranked No. 141, never made it back until this year when she was given a wild card. Based on her three match wins in the Open, Ahn will break into the top 100 in the world rankings for the first time in her career.