Americans, Onward and Out

Saturday, March 09, 2013 /by

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Can you be so focused that you fool everyone into believing that you’re totally calm? Jamie Hampton seems to be blessed with that skill. The fast-walking, fast-talking, fast-swinging Alabama native had everyone on Court 7 marveling this morning at how cool she looked in the clutch during her three-set win over Su-Wei Hsieh. 

“Does she get bothered by anything?” the man behind me asked, sounding a little awed by Hampton’s unruffled aura.

“That’s what it takes, you can’t let things bother you in tennis,” his deep-thinking friend answered. 

These wise words, whatever their practical value, would probably make Hampton happy, because the 23-year-old admitted today that while being intense comes naturally, staying calm is something that she's still working on.

“I’m always looking to bring a good bit of intensity to the match or the court,” she said today, in her trademark inflectionless, rapid-fire monotone. “I think as I get a little bit older and in these situations more frequently, I will probably settle down a bit, get more comfortable with the atmosphere and the environment.”

Hampton could talk a mile a minute if you timed her, but she’s no blabbermouth. Rather, she comes across as a shy person who wants to get her sentences over with as soon as possible. Certainly she’s not concerned about being a star, or even much of a personality.

Asked what the coolest thing about her was, Hampton said, “I’m pretty boring, actually. I wouldn’t consider myself cool at all....My life pretty much revolves around tennis. I eat, sleep, and drink tennis. There’s not too much time for anything else for me.”

When this one-tracked-minded woman was challenged to name who won the Oscar for best picture this year, she thought she had it nailed.

Argon,” she said.

In other words, the reserved, tomboyish, all-business Hampton is the polar opposite of her higher-profile, higher-ranked, more effervescent fellow American, Sloane Stephens. They might meet in the next round, and have split their two match-ups so far.

It’s tempting to make the anti-trendy claim that Hampton could be the better player in the long run, but I don’t think that’s true. There’s a reason why Stephens is ranked 44 places higher despite being three years younger. Sloane has more speed and explosive power, when she decides to use it. But Hampton’s progress has been slowed by wrist and back injuries over the years. She had wrist surgery at 19, and she says that these days it’s a full-time job just to keep her back in shape. 

Twice this year, Hampton has surprised me with the quality of her hitting. She plays the way she walks and talks, with no-nonsense dispatch—even her fist-pump is usually more of a twitch than a full-on exhortation. When Hampton gets a look at her favorite shot, her forehand, she guns it, and she can hit it past anyone. Including the world’s best players. Most notably in 2013, Hampton took a set from Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open, even as her back forced her to take a medical timeout. In typical down-to-earth fashion, Hampton refused to talk about that match as a moral victory today. You get the feeling that her physical struggles have grounded her deeply. 

“Everybody says you get a lot of confidence from that,” Hampton said of her Aussie loss to Vika, “but I just was really disappointed to be that close and to have something that you work so hard for just kind of fail you, like my body.”

Hampton’s other strong performance in defeat this season came against Agniezska Radwanska in Auckland in January. For two sets, she out-hit the world No. 4, only to tighten up and give them both away in tiebreakers. Just as surprising was how calm she looked through much of that match, before suddenly showing us that she wasn’t calm at all—she was just really intense. Maybe Hampton can fool herself into being both someday.

*****

Later in the afternoon, Hampton joined her friends Madison Keys and Melanie Oudin to watch their countrywoman, or country-teen, Taylor Townsend play Ana Ivanovic. By the end, Hampton was the only one of these U.S. hopefuls left in the draw.

Townsend, 16 and still in braces, lost the first five games. She hit forehands 10 feet long. She double-faulted on game points. She watched as balls sailed past her for winners. The former world No. 1 junior looked all of her 16 years, and maybe one or two less.

When she finally won a game with a snappy cross-court backhand winner, Townsend spontaneously lifted her arms over her head and flashed a wide smile. Maybe because of those braces, the smile disappeared pretty quickly, but the good feeling lasted. In the second set, Townsend settled in and began to show some of what she can do. She won points with touch volleys, with her big lefty kick serve, and with her signature shot, her down-the-line forehand that she curls in from near the alley. 

Townsend has power and touch, but thus far she lacks the footwork needed for consistency. She was coached for a few years by Donald Young’s parents, and the two players’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as their service motions, are similar. When Townsend misses, she misses big—especially on returns of serve—in part because she doesn't do everything she needs to do with her feet. 

At the same time, when Townsend is good, she’s really good. The forehand can be lethal, the touch can be special, and best of all is her overhead. She hit virtually all of them today with authority, and for winners (though also all in the same inside-out direction). In the final game, though, she reached back for one more and shanked it into the bottom of the net. Townsend looked up at the sky and flashed a brace-filled smile of pain. This girl who has already been through quite a bit, both highs and lows, in her short life, looked all of her 16 years. And while she missed that shot badly, it looked like she was having fun doing it.

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