In 2012, Taylor Townsend had to pay her own way to the U.S. Open. Townsend, who was then 16 and the world’s top-ranked junior girl, was discouraged from playing in New York by her coaches from the United States Tennis Association—the Wall Street Journal reported that they wanted her to focus on “slimming down and getting into better shape.” Patrick McEnroe, who at the time was the general manager of the USTA’s player development program, told the Journal, “Our concern is her long-term health, number one, and her long-term development as a player. We have one goal in mind: For her to be playing in [Arthur Ashe Stadium] in the main draw and competing for major titles when it’s time.”
Townsend, who made it to the quarterfinals of the juniors that year after buying her own plane ticket, understandably broke with the USTA and has spent the intervening years playing mostly in tennis’ minor leagues. As Chuck Culpepper wrote in the Washington Post on Friday, she’s been a frequent competitor in such non-ESPN-friendly locations as Indian Head Beach, Florida; Dothan, Alabama; and Midland, Michigan. Three years ago, in the first round of a $25,000 tournament in Pelham, Alabama, she found herself matched up against a 69-year-old opponent. Townsend won 6-0, 6-0, losing only 12 points, but the fact that she had to play the match at all, she told the Undefeated’s Jerry Bembry this week, “was a slap in the face.”
Townsend, who’s now 23 years old, entered the U.S. Open ranked no. 116 in the world and had to win three matches to qualify for the tournament’s main draw; in two of those three, she had to come back from losing the first set. On Thursday, she at last made it to Ashe Stadium, where she faced two-time grand slam champion Simona Halep.
Like so many other players outside the sport’s upper reaches, Townsend has at times carried herself forward with little aside from her talent and a stubborn self-belief. That confidence has at times abandoned her; circa the mid-2010s, her coach Donald Young Sr. told the New York Times two years ago, “she was broken in every way.” When Townsend is playing well, though, her conviction manifests very clearly in her on-court game, a relentlessly aggressive net-rushing style that’s out of fashion and indisputably her own. Against Halep, she approached the net 106 times overall and 64 times in the third set alone. “I never played with someone coming so often to the net,” Halep said after the match. By comparison, Serena Williams, who Halep beat to win Wimbledon earlier this summer, has come to net 31 times total in three matches at this year’s U.S. Open.
Townsend’s own Wimbledon came to a frustrating end, as she lost a match point against No. 4 seed Kiki Bertens, failing to close out what would’ve been the biggest win of her career. That nightmare multiplied against Halep, with Townsend this time losing two match points, double-faulting on the first. This time, however, her confidence didn’t waver, and Townsend fought back to win in a third-set tiebreaker, earning her first-ever victory over a top 10 opponent. In an on-court interview afterwards, she said, “This means a lot. It’s been a long journey.” On the page, those words look incredibly banal. But when Townsend said them, choking back tears after the biggest win of her career, standing at the center of the sport’s largest stadium and biggest stage, they sounded more deeply earned than any cliché any athlete has ever uttered.
On Saturday, I sat in the stands to watch Townsend try to back up her biggest career win. This time, she was playing in front of a joyous crowd at the smaller Louis Armstrong Stadium, and her opponent was another, less-heralded Romanian, the unseeded Sorana Cirstea. Townsend struggled early, getting broken in her first two service games. In the first of those, she charged the net down 15-40 on a blooped, 75 mile per hour second serve, then hit her forehand volley into the net. At deuce in the second of those games, she moved forward on 74 mile per hour second serve and got passed by Cirstea’s backhand.
From my vantage behind the baseline, it was clear that this approach-at-all-costs strategy wasn’t working—that Townsend was only helping her opponent by running forward behind these junky serves. But as the match progressed, Townsend got rewarded for her unwavering approach. When logic and her critics—OK, me—thought she should play more conservatively, she kept on charging, and she started forcing Cirstea into errors and hitting sharp volleys and overheads into the open court. After those first two games, she didn’t lose her serve again. Townsend won in straight sets—7-5, 6-2—advancing to the fourth round of a major for the first time. When it was over, she reveled in her new stardom. She’d been getting so many congratulatory texts, she said, that her “phone started dialing 911 by itself.”
In her post-match press conference, Townsend thought back to the time when she decided to “quit tennis,” a retirement that ended up lasting just three days. By all logic, she should’ve quit; in 2015, she won just four matches all year. Now, she’s in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, a spot that’s worth $280,000 in prize money. That kind of cash will buy Taylor Townsend a lot of plane tickets to a lot of majors. It’s been a long journey, and she’s earned that destination.