Tears on the Court at Flushing Meadows
by
Taylor Townsend (YouTube screenshot)

America’s favorite tennis teen, Cori Gauff, was reduced to tears the other night by a wipeout at the hands of defending U.S. women’s champion Naomi Osaka, who was mightily magnanimous in vic’try. It was a moving scene, very emotional, but by then Taylor Townsend had earned her place in the second week of the U.S. Open.

So there were cheers as well as tears, and our best racquets are not done yet, notwithstanding the last men standing, Tennys Sandgren and John Isner, followed each other out of the draw on the Grandstand with losses to Diego Schwartzman and past champion Marin Čilić, respectively. The latter went down in in a blaze of Rafael Nadal’s furia in the next round, but the former — one of the shortest men on the Tour, if it matters — got past Alexander Zverev and will soon see if he can do better than Čilić against the man of Manacor.

It is not the end of the world, and there are the doubles draws, but without Miss Townsend, boy, where would we be? Well, there is Serena Williams, playing great notwithstanding a rolled ankle. Madison Keys was on a hot streak, as was Sofia Kenin and as was Queens, N.Y.-born Kristie Ahn, but they went down before the quarters. so the show goes on. But Taylor Townsend, now there is a story for Reader’s Digest.

The tennis establishment, in the shape of Patrick McEnroe when he was at the top of USTA player development, rejected her due to her build (a bit on the heavy side), so she went and trained with the support of their state-of-art programs and facilities. And now she is on a mighty run, with a game of serve and volley of a quality unseen in women’s tennis since the days of Martina Navratilova. Her innovation and inspirational never-quit story may well bring kids and youth back to tennis in numbers the sport’s marketers can only dream.

Now Coco — the nickname of Miss Gauff — stars in a fine story too, impressive. Just 15 years old, she has unmistakable talent, and earned a wild card into the main draw at what is sometimes called tennis’s World Series. Early this summer she made it into the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and she and Caty McNally (age 17), won the women’s doubles at Washington’s Citi Open just a few weeks ago. She rallied from a set down to get through the first round; in the second she kept her cool when the match was tied at a set each and and found the shots and the focus to take the decider.

Miss Gauff, by any reasonable assessment, is a big part of the sport’s future. Her third-round opponent, Naomi Osaka, 21, is the defending champion here: the sport’s present. Despite an uneven season since winning the Australian Open in January, she is an automatic contender every time she enters a tournament. She has the strokes, the court sense, the discipline, and the will to impose her game and disrupt her opponents’.

Cori Gauff came on very strong against her in the first set of their third-round match in Ashe Stadium. Miss Gauff plays with a fast-paced offensive style that is remarkable, in one so young, for already being tempered by prudence and shrewd tactics when they are needed. She can change pace with a drop shot or a slice, resume her attacking ground strokes, sustain a fierce rally, maintain momentum. Her qualities can only increase.

The explosion of “Coco mania” was perhaps inevitable in the commercialized world of professional sports, wherein the value of tickets, column inches, and air time all conspire together around a “next new thing,” whatever it is at any given moment. The crowd, roaring for the young prodigy, at least had the sense not to boo Naomi Osaka, as it did last year when she upset Serena Williams to win the trophy.

Miss Gauff pushed hard against Miss Osaka in the first set, broke her a couple times and showed the capacity crowd — 23,000 seats were taken and then some —how good she is. She took the balls on the rise, favoring extremely speedy shots, made the defending champion look defensive. It went to 6-3, and even a sharp observer might have been thinking that it was a ball game and still wide open.

True, Miss Osaka might have lost her nerve or gotten flustered by the hollering fans and made mistakes at just the wrong moments. She did none of these things, however. She raised her level, which players of some experience do in second sets, and at 3-0 the only question was whether it was going to be a bagel. She may well have known with certainty it would be: to such a degree that one came away thinking that when she rallied from triple-break point in the second game, it was deliberate. The ultimate disruption of an opponent’s game, after all, is to show him that even when he (or she) has three chances, he really has none. From then on it was almost like taking candy from a child, which in a sense it was.

Miss Gauff was impressive in that match, but Miss Osaka, five years her senior, was dominant, masterful. Repeatedly she had her young opponent shaking her head in disbelief as an unreachable shot to the sidelines. How did the ball get there? Why am I on the wrong side of the court? When you put those kinds of questions into a player’s mind, the match for all practical purposes is over.

While Miss Osaka’s powerful, powerfully intelligent, game was admirable, there was also, in the circumstances, something that had to make you cringe. It was scarcely her fault; on the contrary she was the first one to comfort and succor the girl she had just clobbered. It was a touching moment, and it may even influence those who blame her for spoiling a fantasy, the same who resented her winning the final here last year against Serena Williams.

But she was not the one who waived the WTA rule on the number of tournaments young players are permitted to enter, designed to protect the mental as well the physical strain too much over-hyped competition brings. The tennis establishment and press began questioning it, without bothering to ask any thoughtful questions, as soon as the teen from Atlanta (and Florida) made a run to the sweet 16 at Wimbledon.

The same thing happened, albeit only for 48 hours, when a teenager from Sacramento named Jenson Brooksby won a first-round match in the men’s draw. Immediately the issue was not his athleticism and talent, but whether he should go to college in Texas on a tennis scholarship or turn pro. He said that he would defer deciding until the tournament was over and promptly lost to Nikoloz Basilashvili in round two.

What Taylor Townsend knows, at the ripe old age of 23, is that success in sports requires that to thine own self be true. And the truth here, sportswise, is that she has learned what she does well, and does it.

The true Taylor technique is to advance on light sure feet — she jumps rope between sets to keep them that way — and paint the lines with stunning volleys, putting them away from even swift and persistent opponents.

She won her third-round match against Sorana Cîrstea in an hour and a half, going to the net constantly — 75 times to be exact, half the time to score winners with the effort. Miss Cîrstea, who is from Romania, had no counter-moves, and by the second set she was shanking forehands long almost as often, it seemed, as Miss Townsend was deftly slicing low volleys or moving back with the agility of a dancer — pros always tell kids to “Stay on your toes! dance!” — to catch a lob and put it away with an overhead slam.

That Miss Taylor should beat Miss Cîrstea was not unexpected. Nothing should be expected more readily than the unexpected in tennis, a game of upsets in every sense of the word. At Ashe Stadium in the second round, Miss Townsend had faced Simona Halep, Miss Cîrstea’s better-known compatriot, in a third-set tiebreaker at the end of a match that was passing into myth even as it was being played.

Miss Halep is this year’s Wimbledon champion, and she is the world No. 4, fourth seed in the draw. She is not expected to lose a second-round match against an unseeded player who is No. 116 and whose reputation is that she is a nice overweight girl who cannot finish even when she starts well. And indeed Miss Halep took the first set at 6-2.

Then everything changed. Miss Townsend let herself be Taylor and won every heart in the stadium, maybe even some that were Romanian. Whoops, apologies — if you are writing for a Republican paper, you know our rule is to stick to the old fair-and-accurate and no editorials, thank you. Someone must preserve the integrity of American journalism, after all. Anyway, we were saying — everything changed.

From 16 advances to the net in the first set, Miss Townsend reached 26 in the second, well over half of them resulting in winners. She had Miss Halep on the run. Simona is fast, known to run down everything thrown at her, but Taylor kept raising the pressure, wrong-footing her with alternately subtle and fierce volleys. She took the second set, 6-3, and carried her momentum into the third. She went to the net about 60 times, while Miss Halep stayed in the backcourt like a deer caught in headlights. She did not know what to do, though for sure she never conceded anything.

Although it did not seem that way with her at the net and continually finding the open court, she in fact covered more ground than Miss Halep as she moved forward and backward, stretched for volleys from both sides, bent low to slice them or leaped high to smash them. She was playing her game, and there was no stopping her.

Simona Halep is no slouch. She is a tough little person (they are about the same height, about five and a half) and she made a thrilling come-from-behind run at 3-5 to tie the set at 6-6 and force a tiebreak. Taylor went to the net on every one of her service points to close at 7-4.

It was a stunner. And there was no doubt Miss Townsend was the most stunned of all. Yet she knew what she had done, and the tears streaking down her lovely face showed how she felt about it. When she was Miss Gauff’s age and the national girls’ junior champion, the USTA, which considered her overweight, mucked up her chance to enter the U.S. Open juniors and squashed her chance for a wild card into the main draw. They later mumbled something about “miscommunication,” but the fact that they were patronizing her and balancing opportunities based on proven merit against their notion of what makes smart marketing was not lost on the teen or her parents and coaches. She left the USTA training program and went to work with a friend of the family, Donald Young, Sr., who still coaches her.

In her gracious and tear-stained post-match comments, she said she learned — credit to her coaches, her family, her adversaries — to be herself, play her game, and find her way to “get over the hump” between playing well and playing to win. That extra ounce of will is the crucial one, because it separates the very good from the best, and she found it.

UPDATE

The unexpected is what is most expected in tennis, and thus on Labor Day Naomi Osaka was knocked out in straight sets by Belinda Bencic, following Stan Wawrinka’s TKO of No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic.

This means the top seeds in both singles draws are out before the quarterfinals, an unusual circumstance. But both draws have been more wide open than usual this year. Madison Keys was stopped before the quarters, which was not expected, and Queens-born Kristie Ahn, who was having a fine run for a player ranked well over 100, was, less unexpectedly, stopped by Elise Mertens, a fair contender. But it is wide open.

With Novak Djokovic out, Stan Wawrinka, who last beat him in the 2016 finals, becomes an automatic contender, which he was all along. On the other hand, Diego Schwartzman and Matteo Berrettini beat “Next-Gen” stars Alexander Zverev and Andrey Rublev.

Gaël Monfils, the last of France’s mousquetaires still standing, advanced to the quarters, where he will meet Berrettini, while the mighty Wawrinka will meet Daniil Medvedev, whom Rick in Casablanca would have called a crazy Russian.

The most important Labor Day match remains in suspense: that between Taylor Townsend and Bianca Andreescu, who beat American rising star Sofia Kenin in Canada a few weeks ago in an excruciating match on her way to her first Rogers Cup win, which was facilitated by Serena Williams’ withdrawal in the final due to injury.

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