NEW YORK -- Eighteen-year-old Taylor Townsend, one of the new wave of rising American female tennis players at the US Open -- and yet still a girl who had played all of four Grand Slam matches before Tuesday night -- prepared for this long-awaited moment against her childhood idol and world No. 1 Serena Williams every way she could.
Zina Garrison, Townsend's coach and a former Wimbledon finalist herself, said she and Townsend have watched many of Williams' matches over the years as a training exercise to study Williams' intensity and footwork and shot selection. Garrison said she's had Townsend work with a sports psychologist, too, to imagine herself in big moments like this before they came true. And just before Townsend took the court Tuesday night, thanks to a wild-card entry, Garrison and another one of Townsend's coaches even gave her a version of the "Hoosiers" speech -- you know the one. That part in the movie in which Gene Hackman tells the kids from tiny Hickory that the state basketball tournament game they're going to play is on a court that's the same dimensions as the one they have at home.
"Same court size, we use the same balls," Townsend repeated.
But then the match began. And Williams -- a five-time US Open champion who is seeking to three-peat this year, as well as finally tie Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova at 18 Grand Slam titles -- showed Townsend that nothing can really prepare you for the actual experience of playing her, let alone having to play her for the very first time in the first round of your first US Open singles match as a pro. On center stage. In a sold-out night match at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
As Townsend admitted after her 6-3, 6-1 first-round loss, she had to shake some nerves early on, as well as one come-to-Jesus moment when she was trying to rush the net and she saw Williams draw back her racket to club a return at her and she literally thought:
"Oh my gosh.
"She's gonna smack the ball at me.
"In my face.
"OK. Get ready."
Laughing now, Townsend added, "There were a lot of different things coming up in my head that I was trying to deal with."
The power of Williams' serve, the sting and angles on her groundstrokes and passing shots, the all-business attitude -- all of it was there from the start against the 103rd-ranked Townsend, a former junior world No. 1 whom Williams praised as a possible future face of American tennis on Saturday. And although Townsend, a Chicago native, didn't exactly get blown off the court in the first set, she came away from the match with an important measuring stick of how good she is right now. And how far she has to go. She was almost buoyant afterward.
"I learned the game and style I play can hold up even against the world's best players. ... I learned my serve can be a weapon. ... I learned that if I commit 100 percent, the sky's the limit," she said.
Anyone who thought that her nerve-rattling failures in the first three Grand Slams of the year might leak into this event might want to reassess. Williams looked more like the woman who won tournament titles in Stanford and Cincinnati in the three weeks before this Open. Here, she again served notice that whatever was bothering her before seems to have been worked out.
Townsend, despite her rawness, has an impressive variety of shots. And yet Williams' play was efficient. Brisk. Highly focused. The fact that the two of them struck up a friendship and began texting often after Townsend approached Serena and her sister Venus at a Fed Cup tie didn't get in the way, either.
Really, Williams couldn't have had a better tournament start.
"I think it was an interesting match," Williams said. "I believe she does everything well. She's one of the few players that can come to the net and volley. She has unbelievable hand speed with her volleys. ... I think my game was good for tonight. Hopefully, I can build from this in the early rounds, if I can finally get through them this year."
Williams has had a lot of time to dissect what went wrong in her fourth-round loss at the Australian Open, her second-round ouster at the French Open and then her third-round exit at Wimbledon.
"I've just decided I'm not going to overthink it," Williams said. "I think I overthought every Grand Slam this year, and it really didn't work out great for me. So I think I'm just going to stay positive [here] and do the best I can."
Tuesday, she was more than good enough. And Townsend seemed to be invigorated even though she lost. She said one of the reasons she admires Williams so much is because, well, just look at her: "She's an African-American woman from Compton, California, that won 17 Grand Slam titles. She's paved the way for me -- not just African-American girls like me. Girls in general.
"I just learned from her story that anything is possible."
And if not today for her, maybe someday soon.