Paris—Taylor Townsend knew that Zina Garrison, her co-coach (with Kamau Murray), sliced and diced her way to the quarterfinals in her first appearance here at Roland Garros. She was the same age in 1982 as Townsend is now (18). So it was only natural that Garrison’s protégée tormented her earlier this week with only half-serious threats to better that performance.
“I’d cut her off when she started to go there,” Garrison said today. “I just said. ‘Oh, you’ve got a long way to go.’”
Today, Townsend learned just how far. Townsend, a French Open wild card, was beaten in the third round in barely over an hour by No. 14 seed — and clay-court wizard — Carla Suarez Navarro, 6-2. 6-2. That she found time to make 33 unforced errors (nearly five times as many as Suarez Navarro) in so brief a sojourn in the Bullring (Court One) tells much, but certainly not all.
“She was a little too relaxed for us this morning,” Garrison said after the match was over. “She was like, ‘Oh, I feel good,’ and I was like, ‘I need you to feel a little more pressure.’ But you never know how these big moments will affect you.”
Townsend found out soon enough. The happy-go-lucky teenager with the halogen smile dug herself into a big hole by, as Garrison put it, “going for too much, too soon.” Her performance was something like a parody of the way she plays — a distortion of the same qualities that enabled her to rebound from a 1-5 deficit and reel off nine straight games in her first-round win over Vania King, or to overcome the belle of Nice, No. 20 seed Alize Cornet (and her legions of besotted fans). But the arm that swatted balls so freely in those matches locked up today.
“I was nervous, yeah.” Townsend said. “Just everything has been so new for me over the past couple of days. But I still was trying to really slow down and continue to work on the same things that I have been doing in practice and in the past couple of matches. I was just trying to focus in on that, but there were a lot of other things that were going through my head. I was just trying to keep calm.”
On top of that, Suarez Navarro played near flawless tennis through most of the first set, allowing Townsend just one hold in the first 10 games of the match. In Townsend’s words, “She really had me on the ropes. There was a moment in the second set, though, when Townsend had a slim chance to turn the tide and take a 3-1 lead, and she’d shown twice already this week just how deadly she can be when her game catches fires.
However, Townsend made a pair of critical backhand service return errors on break points in that long fourth game and Suarez Navarro stole away with a hold. She then broke Townsend with relative ease and never lost another game.
“I think that that game was huge, and I knew that the game was huge,” Townsend said later. “Unfortunately, I missed my returns, but the good thing is that I realized how big those points were.”
It was a muted ending to an otherwise exciting week a week of realizations for the Chicago-born pro and junior Australian Open champion (2012), a young lady who has become a symbol of diversity in a way that far transcends the color of her caramel skin. As Garrison, a former Wimbledon finalist and fellow African-American says: “She’s unique. She has great hands, she has power. She really is retro in this new age, but she has everything so she can kind of be both.”
Garrison likes to tell the story of how a man recently walked up to her on the street and said he loved Townsend because she reminded him of the former French pro, Henri Leconte. Garrison did a double-take but when she got thinking about it, she realized the man had a point. Leconte, a French Open finalist, was a dazzling ball striker gifted with delicate touch as well as power. “She’s flashy in the same way Leconte was, but she also has those good hands.”
Other people have told her that Townsend reminds them of Marcelo Rios, the temperamental Chilean former No. 1 who ranks as one of the great shotmakers of the Open era. “I’ve told her that’s flattering,” Garrison said of the comparison, “As long as she doesn’t also bring that attitude.”
The interesting thing, of course, is that both of those are male players. And it isn’t as if anything else about Townsend would suggest a comparison with those two — or any other — men. She’s all girl, from the pretty-in-pink tennis shoes she’s been wearing to the multi-colored bracelets that share space in her arm with wristbands to that delightful smile. But there’s more “unique” in this young lady than in a boxcar full of the ranked journeywomen players in the WTA.
Townsend’s fleshy physique is perhaps the most conspicuous of her unique traits. Her weight has been the subject of much discussion, and the real lesson of the past two years appears to be not that you can be “out of shape” or “unfit” and still win tennis matches; it’s that tennis players, even potentially great players, continue to come in all shapes and sizes. The recurring discussion about what the tennis players of the future will look like is what it has always been — bait for one of those go-nowhere bar stool debates.
Some people will look at Townsend and automatically decide that she’s out of shape, instead of differently shaped. That argument seems a little less persuasive when Townsend describes how she was impelled to play four matches in one day in her last tournament, the Indian Harbor Beach ITF event, where she clinched her wild card into this current Grand Slam.
In the semifinals of that event, Townsend was down two match points. A loss would have left the Roland Garros wild card (the French tennis federation and the USTA have a wild-card exchange program) to Grace Min. But Townsend, who showed just how much of a clutch player she can be here in Paris in two of her three matches, buckled down and won the semi, then celebrated clinching the wild card (via points earned in selected tournaments) with a win in the final over Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva.
“A couple months ago, I was given a wild card in Indian Wells and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is awesome.’ But when I earned the wild card and I was able to come here and say I'm here because I earned it, it's such a different feeling.”
It was a week full of feelings, novel experiences, and new understandings for Townsend — perhaps too many for her to process successfully and still remain as calm and focused as her situation demands. Among the things she learned: “Just to trust myself and believe in myself,” she said. Referring to her aggressive groundstrokes and her eagerness to get to the net, she added, “I have a lot of weapons, and I have a lot of gifts and talents that not many people have, that I have to believe in. Just trust it, because, I mean, that's going to separate me from a lot of different people.
“And if you want to make it to the top, here has to be something that separates you. That’s what makes me different. I'm embracing that, and I love it. I just have to keep working on it and honing in on that.”
This result, combined with her status as an junior Grand Slam champion and junior doubles champion (with Canadian Eugenie Bouchard) will certainly get her on the short list of non-British wild card candidates for Wimbledon. She declared in her presser that she’s dying to get on the grass in England. What if she were to be given a wild card into the main draw at Wimbledon?
“If I got a wild card into Wimbledon, I would pass out right now,” she declared. “Wow. Wimbledon is like my favorite tournament, I swear, I love the grass. I just love the tournament, the atmosphere. That would — oh, my God, I'll probably cry. I'm not a crier, either. So that means a lot.”
And if she doesn’t get offered that wild card, so what? She did pretty well in Paris with the one she earned, and she’s already made plans to play the qualifying event in any case.