PARIS – Of all the narratives winding their way through this year's French Open, one of the most intriguing ones is the one about the two Chicago kids, childhood friends, who had breakout moments this week by reaching the third round of the singles.
One, 18-year-old Taylor Townsend, announced her arrival perhaps a little ahead of schedule. The other, 24-year-old Donald Young, had been awaited so long and through so many peaks and valleys that most thought his moment had long come and gone.
What they do going forward, of course, will determine whether this week at Roland Garros was a blip or a trend. But each in their own way, Townsend and Young are poster kids for finding your own path to success.
Admittedly, the road to the top levels of pro tennis can be quicker for the women, who mature a little earlier physically and don't face nearly as deep a pool of talented contenders. But in the case of Townsend, somehow you expected a longer learning curve simply by virtue of her complex game.
If you hit forehands and backhands, you'll do it in the seniors the way you did in the juniors. If you have to choose a different arrow in your quiver every time you hit the ball – and you have more than just the forehand arrow and the backhand arrow to choose from – it typically takes longer to put it all together.
In her three matches in Paris, a nice run before she was outplayed and out-clayed by Spanish clay-courter Carla Suárez Navarro, Townsend displayed a solid awareness of her strengths on the court, and a solid grasp of herself off the court.
"I know that that makes my game special. So I'm definitely not going to take that away, because there are a lot of people who can hit the ball very hard all day long," she said after losing to Suárez Navarro. "If you want to make it to the top, there has to be something that separates you from all the people who can do the same thing. That's what makes me different. I'm embracing that, and I love it. I just have to keep working on it and honing in on that."
As for Young, well, he has teased before. Often. Two years ago, he broke into the top 40 in the rankings, but couldn't maintain it. Right now, he's at 79; when the new rankings factor in his French Open effort, he should stand at about No. 65.
Can it really be nine years since the lefthander rolled through the junior ranks, winning titles at an age where every accolade and accomplishment started with something along the lines of "youngest since Gasquet", or "first since Roddick" or "youngest since Jim Courier"?
That was heady company indeed. And he admits now that it all could have been handled better. He knows that because he was so much better than his peers, he rested on his laurels a bit and didn't work as hard as he should have. He knows he should probably have sought out more intense training setups. He knows he should have tried harder. But that's done.
Young showed something in Paris this week - never more than Saturday in his five-set loss to a quality clay-court player, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain (the man who took out Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka in the first round). Young went down two sets to none, fought back to take it to a fifth and deciding set, had his chances, and ultimately went down 6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-7 (4), 6-4.
"One hundred per cent last year or a couple years ago I would've thrown it in. It would've been three sets to love, whatever the score was, and 6‑1, 6‑2," Young said. "I decided to fight, and I felt I was better than that. I felt I had a chance to win even from two sets to love down. I was confident my legs would last as well."
As for the irrepressible Townsend, she's not one of the hordes who come into the clay-court season with the ready-made excuses lined up. "Well, clay's not my favorite surface ..." Yada, yada, yada. And in her case, with her game, those excuses would actually be valid. Obviously her attacking game is made for grass. And obviously she loves grass. But you know what? Townsend says she loves the clay, too. And that's half the battle.
What she's doing, and this is a work in progress, is sticking to her guns. She's different – obviously we're not talking about just her tennis game, but that's the biggest thing here – and she is learning to embrace being different and understand how she can make it work for her if she completely commits to it.
It's as refreshing to hear a teenaged tennis player speak in complete, grammatically-correct sentences as it is to hear one who seems determined to resist being sucked into the cookie cutter that is women's tennis these days. That sense of self didn't just happen, coach Zina Garrison says; it's taken a lot of work to get to this point.
For American tennis, the overarching lesson to be taken from these two talented players is that there's no scientific formula for developing champions.
In the wake of the USTA's recent announcement of a massive, expensive national centre in the Orlando, Fla. area – a factory where all kinds of tennis will be taught and nurtured – it's worth noting that these two talents didn't come up that way.
Actually, it's hard to find any truly successful players who came up that way. There is no one way, and champions eventually find a way, some way, somehow.
Young played at Hyde Park Athletic Club in Chicago, where his parents were tennis pros. And he got some help from the Midtown Tennis Club, without which he couldn't have afforded to play indoors during the harsh Chicago winters. In the summers, he "hit outdoors, all the public parks, where you could find a court open."
For Townsend whose parents were longtime friends of Young's parents/coaches, it began similarly, with the Youngs introducing her to the game. Their son is fairly allergic to the net, so it's not as though Townsend was taught an attacking game. It was just in her, and luckily so far no one has tried to beat it out of her and make her the same as everyone else.
It's also worth noting that both Townsend and Young did integrate the USTA's system. And the results were less than stellar.
Townsend got caught up in a big public-relations flap before the junior U.S. Open two years ago. And Young, unwilling to ditch his parents as coaches despite the USTA's entreaties to do so, had a similarly negative experience that resulted in him mouthing off against them, and USTA head of high performance Patrick McEnroe setting the record straight in his memoirs by saying some fairly unflattering things about Young.
In the end, both players seem to have found a comfort level, a compromise approach. Mom is still around, and all of a sudden it's not the worst thing in the world.
Young does some work with USTA coach Craig Boynton, and the association is helping him with some things. But he has kept his parents in the coaching picture and, even if it has taken longer than many would like, perhaps – perhaps – he is finally coming into his own now, still young by tennis players' standards these days.
Townsend seems to have found a kindred spirit in former Fed Cup captain Garrison, who understands the game Townsend is developing better than most and, as an African-American, and one who has long struggled with her weight, can also offer insight in other areas.
We'll see what these two can do at Wimbledon. Young is headed home for a little R&R before heading back over to play on the grass at Eastbourne and Wimbledon.
Townsend expects to play the qualifying. But an intriguing twist popped up in her press conference when a member of the British press suggested she might be in the running for a Wimbledon wild card, with her history there as a junior and her efforts in Paris.
Townsend was verklempt.
"If I got a wildcard into Wimbledon, I would pass out right now. Honestly, that would make my day. Wow," she said. "That would ‑– oh, my God, I'll probably cry. I'm not a crier, either. So that means a lot."