NEW YORK—Taylor Townsend’s victory over Simona Halep on Thursday was exhilarating for a lot of reasons. It was an upset of the woman who had just won Wimbledon. It was pulled off by an American, in front of a lot of Americans. It went to a third-set tiebreaker and involved both players reaching, and saving, match points. It was a vindication story for a woman who had once been essentially dropped by her national federation, in that federation’s biggest arena. And it ended with her spontaneously joyful celebration.
But it was also exhilarating for a different reason, one that may have been wholly unfamiliar to younger fans, and that may have stirred up a strong sense of déjà vu among older ones—or at least anyone old enough to remember the 1990s. Townsend vs. Halep brought back the old one-on-one, every-point-is-a-shootout tension that defined the sport for much of the 20th century, and that has largely disappeared in the 21st.
It was Townsend who brought back that old tension by serving and volleying on every point, on first and second serves. Late in the third set, when Halep hit a perfect passing shot that looked as if it was sure to go for a winner, and Townsend came out of nowhere to cut it off and angle it away for a winning volley instead, I flashed back to Pat Rafter’s glory years of the late ’90s in New York, when he won back-to-back US Open titles by doing just what Townsend had done, over and over again, and which virtually no one on either tour has done since. Even Townsend, for all of her volleying skills, doesn’t normally play like that.
“I mean, I was just, like, what do you have to lose?” Townsend said yesterday. “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.”
We’ve seen a mini-renaissance in all-court play in recent years. Roger Federer, the last 20th century man, has gone back to his net-rushing roots, while Ash Barty has used her doubles-honed volleying skills to reach No. 1. In general, the more times a player moves forward, the better he or she does. As far as style and variety goes, getting players to leave the comfort of the baseline has been good for the game.
But Townsend reminded us yesterday that serve and volley, real serve and volley, where you come in on every serve—and on as many of your opponent’s serves as possible—is an entirely different thing, an entirely different way of playing. It doesn’t just bring stylistic variety; it heightens the one-on-one element of the sport and puts a premium on every swing. When one player is rushing forward, and the other player is trying to find a way around her—or over her, or through her—from the baseline, tennis becomes one long tense and unpredictable showdown. When one player is attacking and the other is fighting off that attack, the sport becomes pressurized. For fans, that’s a rush you don’t get from watching two players move each other around from a distance at the baseline.
Townsend also showed that, contrary to popular opinion, serve and volley can still work. It’s assumed now that players’ ground strokes are too good, and racquets and strings too powerful, for net-rushers to handle. But Halep is one of the world’s best baseliners, and it worked against her.
It didn’t work because Townsend was stunningly brilliant at net. She came forward 105 times and won 63 of those points, which means she lost 42 of them. As she said, some of them were important points, too. But she also proved that just being at the net, and forcing your opponent to hit to a specific spot to beat you, is often enough. Halep hit a lot of brilliant passes, but she couldn’t do it every time. Townsend saved match point not with an epic, lunging, Rafteresque volley; she saved it because Halep, knowing she couldn’t just put the ball back in play, sent her return long. If 80 percent of life is just showing up, 50 percent of serve-and-volleying is just showing up at the net.
“I think it was really great confirmation that this style of play works, that I can continue to do it,” Townsend said.
Serve and volley isn’t a panacea. There are entire articles from the 1960s, in the days everyone came in on every point, lamenting how boring tennis had become because of the non-stop net-rushing—they sound exactly like the articles written in this century about how boring tennis has become in the baseline era. But yesterday was the perfect moment to be reminded of what the net game can offer as entertainment, especially when it comes as surprise. Serve and volley is a dare and a leap of faith—when you rush forward, you know anything can happen, and you know it’s going to happen fast.
It’s fun to watch Rafael Nadal thread a passing shot by an opponent, or Madison Keys belt a 110-m.p.h winner from behind the baseline. But Townsend showed us that it’s just as fun, and maybe even a little more thrilling, to watch someone cut one of those bullets off at the last second and turn it into a winner of her own.
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