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.