CHARLESTON, S.C. — Taylor Townsend is an unabashed Roger Federer fan. Her still-cherubic face brightens at the mere mention of his name, her silver braces gleaming as she lays her Federer fandom on the line.
“Yeah, I love him,” she said, smiling with embarrassment. “I love him.”
Is it his 17 Grand Slam titles? Bolshoi-worthy movement? Swashbuckling forehand? Sure, it’s all those things. But for the 16-year-old Townsend, it’s Federer’s variety and net play that draw her in. Watching Federer’s third-round match at Indian Wells last month, Townsend tweeted a plea for him to get to the net. He did, he won, and Townsend joked that she would be sending him a bill for her coaching services.
“[H]e’s such a great player, but I just feel like he’s so talented and he has such amazing volleys, it hurts me not to see him at the net,” Townsend explained after her first-round loss to Andrea Petkovic at the Family Circle Cup this week. “I’m just like, ‘Please go in!’ Because he sets the point up so well, and all you have to do is take a couple steps to the net and close it off, and it’s OK!”
Townsend admitted she has to tell herself the exact same thing when she plays. In the era of Luxilon strings, slow courts and grinding rallies, it’s rare to see a young player, especially in the WTA, with Townsend’s penchant for variety. Much like her Swiss idol, she can hit a big ball off the baseline, but it’s her willingness and, at times, insistence on finishing points off at the net that sets her apart.
Walk the grounds during a junior tournament and you see either baseline bashers struggling to control their power or super-fit grinders who aspire to be human backboards. Rarely do you see anyone Townsend’s age working to get to the net. In fact, you’d think they were allergic to the net cord. For Townsend, it’s not a tactic or a learned skill. It’s simply how she wants to play.
“When I first started playing tennis, one of the first things I learned how to do was volley,” Townsend said. “So this is really what I know. When I get in trouble in matches, the first thing I do is find a way to the net.”
She added: “It’s not so much about me feeling comfortable. It’s more about me committing myself 100 percent to that game, and embracing it, and saying, ‘OK, this is what I do best, this is what I do when I’m not comfortable.’ So I think it’s just a matter of me accepting the fact that I’m different and I play differently and embracing it wholeheartedly. Doing it, but smart.”
Her style has already picked up a big fan in the locker room. Petkovic, who beat Townsend 6-3, 6-0, raved about the teen’s game and her attitude, unabashedly envious of her ability to play with both power and variety at such a young age. Petkovic couldn’t help but be charmed by Townsend’s ebullient energy — she spotted Townsend dancing in the locker room before their match — and love for the game. When they shook hands at the net, Petkovic let her admiration be known.
“I told her ‘Girl, you’re gonna be big later on, but please wait until I’m done with it,’” the German said, laughing. “Like, I’m serious. I really think so. I love that kind of player. I mean, it’s exaggerated, but she is my idol, kind of, because that’s what we all forget in the course of being a professional tennis player. Because it’s fun and that’s why we started playing the game.”
Petkovic said that when she was 16 she was just a ball-basher with no purpose or intent. Townsend is different.
“I feel like she really knows what she has to do,” Petkovic said. “It’s a little bit all over the place [right now] because I think she has so many options when the ball comes to her that sometimes she gets confused. She can play the slice, she can play a drop shot, she can hit it, she can spin it.”
Said Townsend: “I can do a lot of things with my hands, and so it can be a gift and a curse sometimes. I get greedy with some shots, like, ‘Oh, let me hit this!’ when I didn’t need to.”
Petkovic noted that Townsend will be “huge for American tennis … if she gets some things together, gets a little fitter.” Fitness seems to be the key word for Townsend these days, as she’s committed to a new nutrition and conditioning regime to get up to the levels of the other pros. She even has a nutritionist on call who talks her out of some of her teenage dining choices.
Townsend has already done some damage in her first year as a pro. She won her first WTA main-draw match in Indian Wells, beating No. 57 Lucie Hradecka 3-6, 7-6 (1), 6-3. Before people get too excited about her prospects, though, it’s important to point out that Townsend is still playing under the tour’s age restrictions, which limit the number of WTA tournaments for a player under 18. Townsend, ranked No. 349, intends to play three USTA Pro Circuit events in April in hopes of earning a French Open wild card. She will also compete in the junior tournaments at both the French Open and Wimbledon, before returning to the States for the U.S. Open Series.