Two match points slipped from her grip, but a tough-minded Taylor Townsend was in no mood for moral victories today.
The American qualifier met the most important moment of her career with a fierce commitment to moving forward.
Rushing net with all the urgency of a New York City EMS worker responding to a call for help, a spirited Townsend denied a match point in the final set shocking Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), in a thriller to advance to the US Open third round for the first time.
The 2012 junior world No. 1 showed no fear playing her brand of aggressive tennis predicated on fine feel and angled volleys.
Tears of joy trickled down Townsend’s face after she saved a match point serving at 5-6 in the final set, posting her first career Top 10 win in stirring style.
“This means a lot; it’s been a long journey,” Townsend, pausing to wipe tears from her eyes, told ESPN’s Rennae Stubbs afterward. “I mean I’ve had a match point against (Kiki) Bertens at Wimbledon and just haven’t been able to get over the hump.
“This match means so much and gives me so much confidence to know I can do it.”
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 29, 2019
Befuddled by the lefty serve-and-volleyer’s aggression, Halep never fully found her rhythm and struggled to produce passes under pressure.
“I really think she played great,” Halep said afterward. “She was very inspired for every ball. She came a lot to the net and didn’t miss much. It’s unbelievable. Also my return was really week because I couldn’t feel the rhythm of a lefty.”
Pumping both fists in celebration after a heart-racing triumph, Townsend tapped her right hand over her heart in celebration.
Winless in 10 career matches vs. Top 10 players, the 116th-ranked American took the court carrying a bleak head-to-head history. Halep had swept all six prior sets vs. Townsend, including a straight-sets thrashing in Miami last March.
None of that mattered much to Townsend, who unleashed a relentless net-rushing attack that rattled the former No. 1.
The day after American teenager Caty McNally deployed the net attack pushing 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams to three sets, Townsend turned Flushing Meadows into Forest Hills circa 1970.
Playing throwback tennis, the left-handed Townsend rushed net an astounding 106 times winning 64 of those trips (60 percent) in posting her fourth consecutive three-set triumph.
Instead of waiting for opportunity to arrive, Townsend made the moment happen.
“I think when I’ve played her before I was just trying to make balls,” Townsend said. “I think I played not to lose and today I played to win. I said F- it. I don’t really think I can say what was going on in my head on TV.
“But I mean I just told myself this is an opporunity. It’s a chance go for it. You have nothing to lose.”
Townsend, who is so savvy in the front court she often starts the warm-up at net, embraced the ultra-aggressive game plan and never wavered from her commitment to taking the match to the Grand Slam champion.
“I’ve always came to the net,” Townsend said. “Ever since I started playing tennis, I was always more comfortable at the net than the baseline.
“I was always doing weird stuff, chipping middle shots on the forehand side. I was doing crazy stuff. It was what I enjoyed doing. I always enjoyed coming to the net. It’s always a fine line, especially as you move up and through the levels, that you have to kind of hone in and have things that you do well. You have strengths, but you have to be solid from a certain point because these players are just too good. The level only gets higher. I think it was really great confirmation that this style of play works, that I can continue to do it.”
Flushing Meadows misery continues for Halep, who failed to survive the second round for the third year in a row. Halep has failed to surpass the second round in six of 10 career US Open appearances, including an opening-round exit to Kaia Kanepi last year.
The two-time Grand Slam champion competed with defiance denying a pair of match points when Townsend serve for the third round at 5-4. Halep banged a backhand pass down the line on the second match point then broke for 5-all when Townsend missed a volley.
Moments after the match, the fourth-seeded Halep wondered why she so seldom used the lob against an opponent who closes net so tightly and shrewdly read the Romanian’s backhand pass down the line during crucial stages down the stretch.
Ultimately, Halep credited Townsend’s unsettling variety and unwavering commitment as the keys.
“I think I played a little bit wrong tactic,” Halep said. “Maybe I should have hit more lobs when she was coming. She was very close to the net. I was not inspired at all today, but I fought.
“I thought when I came back that I will take it and I will win it. But sometimes it goes the other way. I’m a little bit upset because of the tactic and because of the way I played. But it’s not a drama. She played really well. She really deserved to win it because she gave everything and she didn’t think of losing. She went all the way with 100 percent belief.”
It was a tough day for Wimbledon winners and seeds as three of the Top 10 seeds tumbled from the field..
Prior to Halep tumbling from the field, Andrea Petkovic upset two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, 6-4, 6-4, on Louis Armstrong Stadium court. Yulia Putintseva stopped ninth-seeded Aryna Sabalenka, 6-3, 7-6 (3), on Court 7.
Meanwhile, Townsend will try to reach her first Grand Slam round of 16 in her 17th major appearance when she faces another Romanian veteran, Sorana Cirstea, next.
The woman with sharp transition skills has learned to tune out the critics and impose her identity.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s been a long road. A lot of haters, a lot of people who weren’t sure,” Townsend said. “I mean, I’ve heard it for a really long time that I was never going to make it, that I wasn’t going to be able to break through or do this or do that.
“For me, especially over this last year, I’ve kind of like really embraced that, thriving in these kind of conditions, being able to prove people wrong. I’ve always been that way, but I think I suppressed that side of me for a long time. I’ve just embraced it and it’s like, This is the person I am. I love it. I thrive in these kind of conditions and I think it showed today.”