American Girls

By Jane Voigt (July 29, 2014)

Washington D.C. — There’s nothing like the hard courts of America. Whether blue, green or purple they are as ubiquitous as grilled cheeseburgers, potato salad, and ice cream in summer.

Here in Rock Creek Park this afternoon, four American girls went at it on a small blue court tucked in a corner of this site shaded with Crepe Myrtle trees in full magenta bloom. 

Playing were Taylor Townsend and Vania King versus Lena Litvak and Alexandra Mueller. A diverse group doing their tennis thing in the nation’s capital, a town where opinions frequently divide along lines marked by less than a tennis net.  

These women were competing, no doubt about it, and each pair wanted to win. But unlike the politicians a few blocks south, these women needed each other … like honestly savored the energy and support without which they would fail. Between points they whispered plans, touched palms, then skipped to their assigned spots on the court. 

They were brilliant in the afternoon light and brilliant in their pursuit of points and their commitment to move along the timeline through lulls and high spots. They smiled and frowned and slapped their thighs when technique forced errors and the other team out smarted. It came to a conclusion, too. Townsend and King defeated their compatriots, 67(5) 64 10-3.

King, Townsend vs Litvak, Mueller CitiOpen 2014 07 29 LB 0008

Vania King (left) and doubles partner Taylor Townsend talk strategy, during their three-set win today at Citi Open. Photo credit Leslie Billman

“They stepped up their game in the first set,” Taylor said, negating the suggestion that their serves weren’t on or their technique was muddled. Vania added, “We got a little passive, too." 

Townsend is the 17-year-old African American phenom who worked her way to the third round of Roland Garros this spring as a wildcard. King, is the more polished two-time doubles slam winner — 2010 Wimbledon and U.S. Open.

Townsend and Eugenie Bouchard were the women’s doubles finalists last year in D.C. With Bouchard withdrawing with a right knee injury a couple days before the tournament began yesterday and Townsend still set on the doubles draw, she went to work in search of a partner.

“I was searching all around town trying to find a doubles partner,” Taylor began, excited to tell the story of their young partnership. “I was playing World Team Tennis and heard Lisa Raymond pulled her calf. She was supposed to play with Vania. So after asking all these people and no no no, I finally asked Vania.”

King knows what it feels like to be 17 and on the verge of tennis greatness. In 2006 she entered the U.S. Open ranked No. 70. She then turned pro, rose to the top 50, a place she has not returned to since. She questioned her career choice and slid in the rankings. Yet in the spring last year she recommitted herself, hiring Alejandro Dulko, brother and coach to the now-retired Gisela Dulko winner of multiple doubles’ titles. 

“She’s an American and a huge inspiration,” Taylor began. “And she’s won two Grand Slams. Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. It doesn’t get much better than that. I mean the two slams that any American would want to win. So, I mean, she knows what she’s doing. So I’m really happy I can play with someone who really understands the game and has had a lot of success.”

King’s new-found motivation and calm demeanor, plus Townsend’s reliance on Coach Zena Garrison, a three-time Grand Slam mixed doubles champion, for mental fortitude naturally extracts and nurtures the most important element of a well-oiled doubles team — the mental game. 

“Sports is such a mental game,” Vania said. “You’re deepest emotions come out on court. I think every athlete needs to constantly maintain their balance on court mentally, you know. So we’re not working on it together, but it’s something we can relate to each other because we all go through the same thing.”

Vania and Taylor first practiced in Florida earlier this year. They got to know each other before any thought of playing doubles rose to the surface. But the seeds were planted.

“We sat down and talked for a while,” Taylor said. “She saw where my head was and I saw where her’s was. It was just nice to get to talk with someone and get in her head, and hear how an American that’s at the top is doing.” 

Townsend and King are seeded No. 3 this week in doubles. They are also playing singles, Taylor as a qualifier. 

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013