She came in through qualifying, having played more than three times as many matches as the second seed Simona Halep, but you wouldn’t know it by the way 116th-ranked Taylor Townsend was playing. The gutsy American put paid to Wimbledon champion Simona Halep's dreams of a consecutive Grand Slam title, dispatching her 3-6, 6-3, 7-6.
Given her form - and her history against Townsend, Halep would likely not have been too worried; before this match, Townsend had never even taken a set off her, let alone a match.
Halep came off a Major streak where she used both pace and power to defeat Serena Williams, but today it was Townsend who had pace, power, skill, and guile - and she used them to full effect.
The left-hander hit some seemingly impossible backhands with fluidity, and never really let Halep - who had won the first set - find rhythm, and that proved to be the former World No 1’s undoing.
It isn’t without reason that Simona Halep is considered among the best counterpunchers in the game today. Having struggled with confidence in the past, Halep had also settled into a comfortable, consistent groove of late. Townsend, on the other hand, came through three tough rounds of qualifying to play the US Open, and looks confident of her game.
Following her defeat of Halep, Townsend, who is currently ranked 93rd, said, “I was just, like, 'what do you have to lose?' 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.”
Indeed, it was net play that won the American the match. She came up to the net a staggering 106 times, winning 64 of those points - a 60 percent success rate. Most importantly, the American won the points she needed to win most, going for broke at the most crucial of times. An aggressive baseliner, Halep was flummoxed by the specialist serve-and-volley served up by her rival.
Anyone watching the first set might have thought Halep had it in the bag. Although Halep is a clay specialist and Townsend’s game is more suited to the quick courts, the pair’s track record was completely skewed in the Romanian’s favour.
Of the three matches they had played prior, one - at the French Open last year, went to Halep - but so too did the hard-court matches the pair played at the Western and Southern Open, and in Miami . But Townsend refused to let Halep settle.
Although Townsend began power-hitting from the get-go, she was perhaps unable to control that power well early on, and Halep’s adept backhands meant that the match started at a fairly even keel. Indeed, in that first set, Halep looked to be firmly on top, sending Townsend scrambling around. Although the Romanian conceded a few errors early on, giving Townsend a foot in the door in the first set, she quickly made up for it, with Townsend unable to reach a few of her shots - and sending a few of her own long, unable to get a hand on how much power she generated.
The No 4, by the end of the first, looked so firmly in control of the match that most would have predicted a quick, straight-sets win and her inching closer to a second consecutive slam.
Although she did not come into the set as much in set 1, Townsend unleashed the serve and volley to the full extent in set 2. The style itself is somewhat of a throwback, considering most players in the past two decades have stuck to attacking baseline tennis - Halep included.
Serve-and-volley is considered more traditional and enjoyable by some watchers, but it is also a much rarer sight to see these days, let alone to the extent that Townsend played it. By the second set, it seemed as though Halep had shifted from her more aggressive play to defensive tennis, fending off Towsend volleys quick and fast. The Romanian’s nerves began to get in the way; she committed three double faults and 11 unforced errors during the set. At the same time that Halep began to lose focus, Townsend found her own.
The American won 58 percent of her net points in the second set; Halep won 0. Intelligent volleying from the 23-year-old, and frustration on the part of the World No 4 combined to give Townsend a well-fought second set, 6-3, and force the decider.
With that decider, Townsend also put the gas on Halep. The Romanian was visibly flustered as she repeatedly smashed her racquet into the court; meanwhile, the American rallied from 0-40 down on her own serve to build on her break in the third.
Nerves seemed not to get to her at all, despite some errant and wide shots, and indeed, a late fightback from Halep. Down 4-5 to Townsend in the decider and looking to break back, the 2019 Wimbledon champion mounted a phenomenal return, with the first sign of nerves from the American, who squandered two match points at 5-4 in the final set.
It appeared, even at the end, that momentum had swung slightly in favour of Halep, who went from down two match points to holding match point of her own. But unable to effectively play serve-and-volley, the Romanian instead sent the match to a tiebreak, one that Townsend happily accepted.
Would more lobs have helped Simona Halep? It is very likely; with fewer and fewer serve-and-volleyers today - particularly few on the women’s circuit - most leading players on the court today are unsure of how to play them. Today, Halep, known for her ability to return, simply could not return Townsend’s volleys and many of her returns fell short of the net.
For Townsend, it was a magical combination of a throwback style one rarely gets to see nowadays, with the confidence of someone, as she so succinctly put it, "with nothing to lose." It was both her style and her mental tenacity that won Townsend - who was once a junior No 1 - her first career win against a top 10 player.
But for someone who was once barred from playing by the USTA because they said she was "too overweight", even though she was the top-ranked junior at the time, Townsend has been through it all and come out on top. Despite having nearly lost her final qualifying match, Townsend came back from being a set down and 1-5 in a tiebreak to win.
"I've had a lot of people doubting me being able to breakthrough. It's just confirmation more for myself that I'm on the right path, doing the right things,” Towsend said post her win. Now, all she has to do is repeat those right things against another Romanian, Sorana Cirste, and she could well see her best Grand Slam performance yet.
Updated Date: Aug 30, 2019 12:36:16 IST