Women are ‘proving a point’: A variety of styles can win

  • >> Christopher Clarey, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-09-03 12:17:17 BdST

Sep 2, 2019; Flushing, NY, USA; Bianca Andreescu of Canada (R) hugs Taylor Townsend of the United States (L) after their match in the fourth round on day eight of the 2019 US Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Reuters

These are boom times in women’s tennis, with multiple generations colliding.

The greatest player of the 21st century — Serena Williams — is still a major factor at age 37. New stars in their teens like 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu, 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova and 15-year-old Coco Gauff have emerged to challenge the likes of Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep.

But the first week of the US Open also has underscored another delightful development: a resurgence of stylistic variety.

Taylor Townsend, an extroverted American qualifier, is the extreme example. She has seemingly revived the serve-and-volley style in the women’s game all on her own by reaching the fourth round. She befuddled Halep in a second-round upset by charging forward repeatedly and knocking off acrobatic winners at the net.

As compelling a story as Gauff was in her run to the third round, Townsend, who was defeated by Andreescu, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2 on Monday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium, became the most irresistible story inside the game.

“I mean Rafa just said, ‘Well done,’ I mean like, jeez,” Townsend said of Rafael Nadal on Thursday.

She added, “It’s amazing to see that the tennis community, quote-unquote, is watching and embracing and appreciating something that’s not the norm.”

Serve-and-volley, as Halep’s frustration made clear, can destabilise the opposition at this stage by forcing players out of established patterns and comfort zones. But serve-and-volley is also a crowd pleaser — because of the novelty effect and because it creates a contrast in styles. That contrast was once the rule in the men’s game and common in the women’s game when net rushers like Pam Shriver and nine-time Wimbledon singles champion Martina Navratilova were duelling against baseliners like Chris Evert and Tracy Austin.

Playing styles have become more similar and baseline-focused since then. The trend is linked to the homogenisation of surface speeds and the arrival of polyester string in the late 1990s, which allows players to take bigger cuts from more extreme positions and produce the kind of huge power and dipping passing shots that can make controlling a volley a much tougher proposition.

The move toward surface homogenisation was not without foundation: Tournament directors concluded that their paying publics preferred extended rallies to a men’s game dominated by big servers and staccato exchanges. Balls got heavier; courts got grittier. Even the grass was altered: see Wimbledon, where serve-and-volley once ruled but is now nearly extinct.

But some understandably feel the pendulum has swung too far, and the women’s game never had a widespread big-server problem in the first place.

Shriver, 57, a former No. 1 doubles player and US Open singles finalist in 1978, is among those delighted that Townsend is bucking the trend at Flushing Meadows. Shriver served and volleyed regularly back in her day.

“People have been saying for years that you can’t play that style and win,” she said. “I always thought they were wrong, but people always said I was biased because that’s how I played. But I do think Taylor is proving a point, and I think other people are proving it, too. I think there’s been a shift in the last couple years toward more of an all-court style.”

The all-court renaissance is not based on serving and volleying which remains the most specialised of tactics, but on using more of the tools in the traditional tennis toolbox: pace and trajectory changes; crisp slice off the backhand and even the forehand; and regular forays to the net.

Two of the best examples are Barty and Andreescu, but Belinda Bencic, who knocked Osaka out of the US Open on Monday, is an all-court player of a different sort. Flat-hitting is her signature, but she also knows how to create opportunities all over the court and capitalise on them: she won all 10 of her points at net against Osaka, picking her moments to attack very smartly.

Torben Belz, who coaches Donna Vekic, Bencic’s next opponent, said one of his goals was to get Vekic to come to net more often.

“We will be practicing it a lot and coming in more,” he said. “But I still think it’s about power from the baseline and big, heavy groundstrokes and not coming in too much.”

Punching or counterpunching power remains essential. Barty and Andreescu, who will face Elise Mertens in the quarterfinals, have the big forehands and strong serves to hit winners on their own (Andreescu also has a deadly crosscourt backhand). But they have the court-coverage skills to absorb pace along with tactical and technical variety.

It is quite a package.

“Players like Osaka are going to be forced to add more variety to their game,” said Sven Groeneveld, one of the game’s most experienced coaches, who worked with Maria Sharapova and most recently Sloane Stephens.

Barty, the Australian who won the French Open this year and will return to No. 1 on Monday, has perhaps the best volleying technique on tour along with a crisply sliced backhand. Andreescu, the Canadian who won hardcourt titles in Indian Wells and Toronto this year, is also happy to express herself on all sections of the canvas. She is a potential No. 1 herself if she can avoid the types of injuries that have slowed her progress so far.

“Look, I’m not sure we can say yet that there is a change in women’s tennis,” Sylvain Bruneau, Andreescu’s coach, said in an interview Sunday. “I think it would be nice, but it might be a bit early to call it a big trend. But as far as Bianca is concerned, there is definitely a desire on her side to play tennis in a way where she’s using different tools, different strategies and keeping things versatile and mixing things up. It’s how she likes to play tennis and how we train, and it’s possible that it will influence others to do so. But let’s wait and see.”

The wait may not be long. Consider the tactics deployed by the 17-year-old American Caty McNally when she pushed Williams to three sets in the second round on Ashe Stadium. She served and volleyed on only a few occasions, but she also hit flat returns off Williams’ second serves that she followed to net.

Her results were mixed, and she lost the final two sets in a hurry. But it was revealing that she felt confident enough to deploy her attacking skills on that grand a stage against a champion of Williams’ stature.

“My mom played a lot of doubles in her career, and I’ve worked on volleying ever since I was really young,” said McNally, whose mother, Lynn, played at Northwestern and briefly on the WTA Tour. “I think that’s something that other people don’t do. They just kind of are more baseline-oriented, and for me, I’m always working on my volleys every single day.”

Townsend, 23, does the same, which helps explain her outstanding touch at the net. While McNally has long been a huge fan of all-court threat Roger Federer, Townsend took her cue from the attack-minded, emotionally expressive Navratilova.

“I just loved how she was on the court, her energy, what she brought to the equation,” Townsend said. “She made it so interesting to watch tennis. It was more than just hitting a ball. It was emotion. It was passion.”

Townsend has generated some goose bumps of her own at the Open. And though the odds are heavily against serve and volley returning to the fore week to week, there is a lesson to be learned from the fascination with her style and success.

“We need more variety in our game,” Groeneveld said.

One way to ensure that variety is to make sure there are enough surfaces and conditions on tour where it can thrive.

© 2019 New York Times News Service