Snagging One

by: Steve Tignor | January 27, 2012

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TtMELBOURNE—A lot of cool things happened to 15-year-old Taylor Townsend on her trip to Australia this month. She got a few toy kangaroo souvenirs for her family, as well as a couple of koala trophies. She watched Roger and Rafa go toe to toe—“I was in shock,” Townsend said of their rallies. She played inside Rod Laver Arena, made a Hawk-Eye challenge, and, for good measure, completed a rare sweep of the girls’ singles and doubles events. But all of that may have paled in comparison with her biggest find at Melbourne Park: four official Australian Open towels, sitting in the sun, unattended.

You must realize that these aren’t any old towels. The pros take them by the thousands each year. Rafael Nadal said today that he has 10 of them himself. So you can understand Townsend’s excitement when she stumbled upon her treasure. “I was surprised I saw four towels,” she said, flashing her braces in a wide grin. “Like two towels on one seat, two towels on the other. I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m gonna snag these.

“That’s exactly what I did.”

It’s been a banner Aussie Open for Townsend in many ways. Seeded 14th and competing in just her second junior Grand Slam, she became the youngest winner of a junior singles title here since her friend Donald Young did it at the same age six years ago. The two prodigies share more than just that piece of trivia. Both are left-handed, both are African-American, both hail from Chicago, and both have trained with Young’s parents, Donald, Sr., and Alona, in Atlanta. That’s where Townsend says she learned the attacking game and accomplished net play that may set her apart from her peers in the future. “Ever since I was young,” the apparently not-that-young-anymore Townsend says, “when I started playing tennis, we always did volleys. Mr. Young and Ms. Young, they always taught me just to move forward.”

Townsend says with a matter of fact smile that she has “pretty good hands.” Those hands were in evidence in her three-set win over Yulia Putintseva of Russia in today's girls’ final, a histrionical affair that ended with the loser smashing her racquet over and over and the winner falling to a scorched rubberized court before overflowing with that she called “tears of joy.” Townsend, who switched last year to the Prince EXO3 Tour and began using the company's Beast XP brand of spin-producing polyester strings, won the match with powerful forehands and two-handed backhands, some well-timed, precociously savvy net play, and a heavy, cutting lefty serve. Its motion, perhaps not surprisingly, bears more than a passing resemblance to Young’s.

“She has a great feel for the game,” says USTA director of player development Patrick McEnroe. Townsend left Atlanta last year to train at the USTA’s center in Boca Raton, Fla. “She has that easy power you love to see, and more variety than most of the girls. I think it’s a game that should translate well at the pro level.”

McEnroe also likes the fact that she’s working with what he calls a “tight-knit group of girls at Boca.” It includes 17-year-old Grace Min, last year’s U.S. Open junior champion, and 16-year-old Madison Keys. “I think it’s when you get those groups together that you see success at the higher level.” For U.S. tennis fans waiting for their next women’s champion, these are signs for cautious optimism.

“We practice together,” Townsend says of her days at Boca with Keys and Min. “We push each other.”

What’s next for Townsend? She seems ready for more, right away. A reporter asked her today if she was ready to “slow yourself down and not push success too fast?”

The outgoing Townsend didn’t hesitate with her answer. “No,” she said, “I mean, I’m just gonna keep doing what we’ve been doing. I’m playing a pro tournament in about a week. It’s a great opportunity, It’s a 100,000 [dollar tournament, in Midland, Texas], so I’m just gonna go there and do my thing.”

The fun stuff, the koalas and the kangaroos, is over fast, and the pro grind beckons. “You want a balance,” McEnroe says of how Townsend should proceed from here. “A mix of competition—play the big junior events and ease into women’s events, try to get into the Top 100 this year. The big thing is that she keeps playing her game."

Townsend is currently ranked No. 426, so there’s not shortage of work to be done in 2012. After this Aussie Open, though, when she’s back sweating with her friends on the hot courts in Boca, she’ll know what she’s playing for and what a big title feels like. And she’ll have a few nice towels to keep herself dry.

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