Taylor Townsend: 'I'm pretty darn good'

PARIS -- While playing juniors last year at Roland Garros, Taylor Townsend said she wanted to be a multiple Grand Slam winner by age 22 and "the next big thing.'' That's a lot to accomplish in the next four years, but the 18-year-old started some buzz this week by winning her first two matches at Roland Garros, including an exciting second-round upset over Alize Cornet that prompted Andy Murray to tweet, "How good is Taylor Townsend! #talent.''

"How good am I?'' said Townsend, who plays 14th-seeded Carla Suarez Navarro in the third round of the French Open on Friday. "Well, I don't want to sound conceited and everything. But, I mean, I'm pretty darn good, I guess. I'm doing well. I'm just really happy that all my hard work is paying off.''

Hard work and a demanding schedule. In addition to the many tournaments she's playing, Townsend must work to finish her high school degree. Her parents are school administrators (her father is a high school principal) and they insist on the diploma. "They are definitely pushing it,'' Townsend said. "Trust me. They are driving me insane.''

And on top of that, she must squeeze it all in while training in two cities: Chicago (her hometown) and Washington.

"A lot of people think that's weird, but it works for her,'' said Zina Garrison, who coaches her in Washington. "It does because she is different. She has the type of game that can change the way people think you should do things.''

The youngest and lowest-ranked player (205th) in the tournament, Townsend says Garrison and Chicago-based Kamau Murray are life coaches as much as tennis coaches.

"Zina's really helped me understand the game and understand the mental side of things, and also learning that part has made me a better person,'' Townsend said. "I have always said that tennis was relative to life, but I didn't know how to put them together, but now I see it really does. Things you do on the court and the habits you have on the court also carry off the court as well.''

Chicago does not have the optimal climate for tennis, but Kamau Murray said that's not what is important.

"It's not about the climate -- it's about the environment. We create an environment that can make her a tough, American champion,'' the coach said. "As we all know, the south side of Chicago is a very rough place. If you make it far enough, you come with a mental toughness so that if you do face a little bit of adversity, you're not shell-shocked. I think the next great American is going to come from a foundation that goes into an urban place that finds a kid that is naturally tough and does have to fight a little bit and doesn't come from such a pampered environment.

"And then you can teach the tennis skills. Because all the skills are easy to teach if the coach is semi-competent.''

Townsend certainly has the skills. She was the world's top-ranked junior, and Chris Evert compared her to a young Martina Navratilova while Garrison said the sky is the limit.

"She has a very unique game. She is what I call retro. Retro in the new age,'' Garrison said. "We're just learning to get her to bring down some of those, what I call 'ESPN shots.' She hits such great shots sometimes then she might miss an easy one. I think her greatest strength is her desire to win.''

As has been discussed, Townsend does not have the traditional tennis figure. She is built much more like Serena Williams than Maria Sharapova. Two years ago, the USTA didn't even want her to play at the US Open because of concerns over her physical shape.

"Everything that's happened to her has been great because it's making her tougher,'' Garrison said. "As far as appearance is concerned, I've told her over and over: She is what she is and what's she going to be, and she just has to be comfortable with herself. Because we're all going to be judged on something. It's always something.''

Townsend showed her toughness against Cornet on the court at Suzanne Lenglen. The French crowd got very loud at times, chanting Cornet's name, ignoring official pleas to quiet down and even doing the wave. Alison Riske let the crowd noise distract her against her French opponent Thursday and ended up losing, but Townsend did not. She kept her focus solidly on her game, even peering into her notebook for practice reminders during breaks and putting those reminders into action on the court.

After beating Cornet under considerable pressure, Townsend didn't sound at all nervous about her match against Navarro, a top player and clay specialist.

"I know she's been playing well and loves clay courts. So I definitely know what to expect,'' Townsend said. "I think that it will be a good matchup. I love red clay, too, so two red clay lovers. But I'm looking forward to it. I'm really excited. I think it's a great opportunity. I'm just going to go and try to do the same thing I have been doing, working on one ball at a time and focusing on the things that have gotten me to this point.''

And could take her much, much further, or at least inspire some more tweets from Andy Murray.

"I love the way she played, she's just a really nice player to watch,'' Murray said. "She hits the ball great. She's very talented. She volleys. You don't see that much now, don't really see it on the men or the women's tour at all. She had drop shots, she had angles, good attitude. Yeah, she was just very fun to watch. She's going to be a very good player.''