We're counting down the Top 10 matches of 2019 as part of Tennis Channel's Home for the Holidays. Click here to read each selection.
Taylor Townsend’s upset win over Simona Halep at the US Open was memorable for many reasons. It was an upset, by a player ranked No. 116 in the world, of the woman who had just won Wimbledon. It was pulled off by an American, in front of thousands of screaming Americans. It went to a third-set tiebreaker—2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4)—and involved both players reaching, saving, and squandering match points. It was vindication for a woman who had once been once been dropped by her national federation, in that federation’s biggest arena. And it ended with one of the most spontaneously joyful and cathartic celebrations of the season.
But this match was also memorable for another reason, one that may have been unfamiliar to younger fans, and that may have stirred up a strong sense of déjà vu in anyone old enough to remember all the way back to the 1990s. For a couple of hours, 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. Fans of a certain age who watched the 23-year-old lefty leap to her right to cut off what looked like a perfect pass from Halep, and angle it away for a winner of her own, may have flashed back to Pat Rafter’s glory years of the late ’90s at Flushing Meadows.
“I mean, I was just, like, what do you have to lose?” Townsend said. “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.”
After decades of watching players back their way to the baseline, we’ve started to see some creep forward again. Roger Federer, the last 20th century man still standing, has returned to his net-rushing roots. Ash Barty has used her doubles-honed volleying skills to reach No. 1. As far as style and variety goes, getting players to leave the comfort of the baseline has been good for the game.
But Townsend went a step farther. She showed that 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 way of playing. It doesn’t just add stylistic variety; it heightens the sport’s one-on-one element and puts a premium on every swing. When one player is rushing forward, and the other is trying to find a way around her from the baseline, tennis becomes one long showdown—an extended dare. For fans, it provides a rush and an immediacy that we don’t get while watching two baseliners parry from a safe distance.
More important, Townsend, who won 63 of 105 points at net, made the seemingly extinct style work for her. She didn’t do it with stunningly brilliant volleys; she did it because she forced Halep to miss passing shots. As every good serve-and-volleyer knows, just planting yourself at the net, and making your opponent hit to a specific spot to beat you, is often good enough.
“I think it was really great confirmation that this style of play works, that I can continue to do it,” Townsend said.
She went on to beat Sorana Cirstea in the third round at the Open, and took a set before falling to eventual champion Bianca Andreescu in the round of 16. Townsend would play just one more tournament in 2019, and finish the year ranked No. 84. Whether she can serve-and-volley her way into the Top 50, or Top 20, remains to be seen.
What we do know from her win over Halep is that this playing style can still grip us. We love to watch Rafael Nadal bend a passing shot by an opponent, and Serena Williams belt a forehand winner from behind the baseline. Townsend proved that it can be just as thrilling to watch someone cut one of those bullets off at the last second and turn it into a winner of her own.