NEW YORK -- Serena Williams is already prepared for the hype that will surround her first-round match at the U.S. Open against 18-year-old American wildcard Taylor Townsend. Williams comes into the match with a 12-1 record since Wimbledon, having just won her fifth title of the season at the Western & Southern Open. She's well aware of how dangerous Townsend's raw blend of power and variety can be.
"She's a lefty. I always wanted to be lefty," Williams told reporters during Media Day on Saturday. "That just in general puts you on a whole new level as a player. She's a very aggressive player. She comes to the net. She makes her shots. You don't really see that in tennis so much. You see players that stay back and hug the baselines, as I do. But it's good, refreshing, and I think it's the future of tennis just by doing what she does."
In Serena's own words, the match pits her veteran sensibilities against "the future of American tennis." Townsend, a former junior No. 1, began the season ranked outside the top 300. After a strong run that has seen her make the third round of the French Open and become a reliable qualifier at tour events, she is now ranked No. 103, and is poised to crack the top 100 soon. "It's going to be a great match for me," Williams said. "She's such a great player. Extremely young. I have been able to see her play a little bit. She does everything really, really well. We're really good friends. We always talk and always text each other."
It's a must-watch match to see how Townsend will fare on tennis' biggest stage in her first match against Serena. But Williams stressed that it's still just one of seven matches she hopes to win in New York. The defending champion has been stuck at 17 major singles titles after failing to advance past the fourth round of any Slam this year. When asked about the prospect of finally getting No. 18 to tie Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for No. 2 on the list of Slam titles in the Open Era, Williams downplayed the expectations. "Competition is a little stiff now, so I have to do the best that I can," she said "I can't even think that far, to be honest."
After all, she's been in this position before. "Australian, Wimbledon, and French also could have been 18; didn't quite happen."
For now the focus remains on her first match, which will highlight the growing number of young American women who are making an impact on the WTA Tour. It's been nearly 20 years since Serena and her sister Venus turned professional and the two are still the highest-ranked American women after a strong summer season brought Venus' ranking up to No. 20. The influx of young talent, like Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, takes the pressure off Serena to fly the flag alone.
"We had Madison Keys, she won a tournament just recently," Serena said. "I think if anything, that just shows that she's definitely stepped up to the plate. So many Americans are doing really, really well and getting closer to the finals and making some big steps by leaps and bounds. I have never felt the pressure. I always felt honored to be holding that trophy as the American and leading American tennis. But I feel like there are so many players now that are willing, ready, and able to take that."