Taylor Townsend going old school

For rising American teenager Taylor Townsend, climbing up the WTA rankings is not just about winning matches, it's how she plays her game.

The 18-year-old from Chicago, who was coached by fellow pro Donald Young's parents growing up, likes to charge the net regularly, making her stand apart from almost all the tour these days. Though there have historically been plenty of serving and volleying champions in the women's game, with Margaret Court, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova among them, it is now almost uniformly populated by baseliners. While players are again beginning to come to net to put away the ball, few do it regularly. Townsend is looking to bring serving and volleying back.

The former junior No. 1 is off to a good start, breaking into the top 100 from below No. 300 about a year ago, and this season she is aiming higher.

"I've climbed a lot of spots," Townsend said, "so it's obviously something I can do.

"I'm shooting for around top 50, but just taking it a step at a time."

Moving up the rankings is allowing her to play more big WTA events, providing valuable experience.

"Just being able to play consistently on this level makes a huge difference," she said. "Being able to play, be around in the midst of these players and being able to play tour-level events. It'll give me more of a consistent idea. And it'll give me more matches."

But while Townsend's aims are similar to any up-and-comer making her way on the WTA, her game is not, so she has also had to see whether her style of play could be still effective in today's game. But Townsend is convinced.

"I've seen [in these] couple of matches, it really, really works," she said. "And just the more matches I can play, the more confidence I can get in doing that."

She pushed No. 5 Caroline Wozniacki to a tiebreaker in the first set of the Australian Open and impressed No. 1 Serena Williams in the first round of the US Open.

"She's one of the few players that can come to the net and volley, as well as she has unbelievable hand speed with her racket," Williams said, also noting that Townsend received a tweet of approval from Andy Murray while reaching the third round of the French Open last year.

Though such praise has been welcome, Townsend has had to show herself that her attacking game can work, especially because she can't look to emulate her fellow players.

"No, because no one does it," Townsend said, speaking of her serve-and-volley game. "And that's why I'm saying it's good for me, because it works. There's a few girls who have variety, but to be able to do it when pressure comes, or to be able to throw in serving and volleying, and be comfortable up there. ... I don't really see anyone playing the game right now that does that."

Instead, she has looked to previous generations and the men's tour for inspiration and ideas. Townsend, who previously trained with the USTA, is now coached by Zina Garrison, a former Wimbledon finalist who knew her way around the net. Townsend calls 18-time Grand Slam champion and fellow left-hander Navratilova her idol even though she hadn't been born when Navratilova raised her final Grand Slam singles title.

"My coach has unbelievable hands," Townsend said. "When we hit together, just working on her volleys, I'm consistently amazed, because she understands the racket, what she can do with the ball.

"But also Navratilova, just because it's easy for me to see how she moves, how she moves toward the net. And just being a lefty, it makes it a little bit easier -- coming from a right-hander sometimes, it's a little bit more different.

"And Roger Federer is also a person that I really like to watch because of -- many reasons, but the way that's he's kind of incorporated, especially since he's been working with [Stefan] Edberg, moving forward and his first step and how explosive he is moving toward the ball."

A cheerful, open personality, Townsend has experience handling pressure in the juniors and also seen what it's like to be in the spotlight, even when it's not welcomed. She was involved in a controversy about her weight two years when the USTA told the girls No. 1 it would not send her to the junior US Open unless she improved her fitness.

Garrison, who had physical and psychological issues with her own weight during her playing days, has been a useful source of guidance on such things as well since the two began working together about a year ago.

Townsend, who received a wild card into this week's event in Indian Wells, now wants to "improve on things I know will work in the long haul." She is concentrating on using her left-handed delivery, staying patient from the baseline and charging the net on the right shots.

"Just working on my serving, just being aggressive off the ground," Townsend said. "I haven't made any technical changes. It's all about placement. If you can hit a spot on the court. If you can put the ball where you want it; that's what the best players do.

"You have a natural advantage with being a lefty. So we've been really able to hone in on that loftiness and use [it] as an advantage so I can get an easier ball for the second or third shot."

Along with players such as the slumping Sloane Stephens and recent breakthrough Madison Keys, Townsend is among a group of emerging Americans on the tour and says she finds being on tour easier socially when there are a lot of her English-speaking compatriots around.

But on the court, she is prepared to be different -- a new name with an old game.