Commentary

Baseline Buzz: Sloane or Townsend?

Young Americans are immensely talented, but who has the bigger upside?

Updated: May 29, 2014, 3:58 PM ET
By Jim Caple and Matt Wilansky | ESPN.com

PARIS -- On second thought, perhaps Serena Williams' 64 minutes of lifeless tennis Wednesday didn't completely kill the vibe of the Americans.

We can thank the youngest player in the French Open draw for that. She's a former Aussie Open junior champ, who is refreshingly poised at 18 years old and, perhaps most importantly, she's reaping the praise of Andy Murray.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Townsend
AP Photo/Darko VojinovicIt was just a matter of time before we were going to see Taylor Townsend's talent on full display.

Which leads us to Taylor Townsend, the highly touted U.S. teenager who knocked out the 20th-ranked Alize Cornet. After a disastrous day that saw first Venus Williams and then Serena exit the French Open, Townsend's win infused some serious energy back into the tournament.

But not to be outdone is Sloane Stephens, who, for all the scrutiny, if not criticism, she has endured, showed off her talent once again by reaching the third round of the French Open on Thursday.

So, you might wonder, who has a bigger upside, Townsend or Stephens? To the Baseline Buzz we go:

Jim Caple: It's an intriguing question. Who would you pick for your fantasy team? If you're just picking for this year, the easy answer is Stephens. But for down the road? Hmmm. Stephens was the next big thing last year when she beat Serena in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, then reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the fourth round at the US Open. But she hasn't made any progress since. Playing very inconsistently, she has slipped from 12th to 19th and gone one-and-done in five tournaments this year. She has amazing talent -- but she needs to play much more consistently and bring the same game to the lesser tournaments as the Slams.

Matt Wilansky: Which brings up another question: Why has Stephens played so flat or, more so, uninspired ball outside of the majors? Generally, players with nothing more to prove, a la Roger Federer and Serena Williams, might annex that mindset, but for Sloane, she's done virtually nothing outside the Slams and that aforementioned Aussie Open run last year. Stephens has a total of zero titles on tour, which as I am sure you know, Jim, isn't Hall of Fame stuff. But again, she's only 21 years old, and you'd like to think that she'll begin taking lesser tournaments more seriously. As for Townsend, she's still green, but the early indications here in Paris are positive, especially for someone who came into the French Open with a grand total of only two WTA-level matches under her belt this season.

Caple: Townsend obviously has the confidence and the strong desire to win. She's the youngest woman to reach the third round here in five years and says she wants to win several majors by age 22 and ranked No. 1 in the world. She also has a wonderful all-around game, including a dynamic overhead. Now, she also is not exactly svelte, which the USTA made into an issue in 2012. Will her weight hamper her progress as a player? Or will she simply grow into a very strong, very powerful player like Serena? Stamina certainly wasn't an issue in her second-round match against Cornet. She was just as tough in the third set as she was in the first.

Wilansky: It's a sensitive topic, for sure. But this morning I ran into 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Chris Evert and asked her what she liked about Townsend's game. Evert extolled her movement against Cornet, saying "she was all over the court" in Wednesday's win. But what I liked in her match was the advanced acuity Townsend showed. She knew when to unleash her massive groundstrokes and when to pull back. She wasn't all power and nothing else. It was a clear sign of maturity. And as Evert said, "I liked how she dug herself out of holes when she was losing -- the determination. For Taylor, I think she's just a little further along as far as mental toughness than Sloane is. At the same time, she reminds me of a young Martina Navratilova as far as the lefty serve, the volleys, the touch." Whoa ... Navratilova? Some might consider that a compliment.

[+] EnlargeStephens
Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty ImagesSloane Stephens has an enormously bright future, but her motivation has been questioned in recent months.

Caple: Some might? Tell me who wouldn't. One thing ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez said about Stephens is that she is so talented and has so many choices on the court that she doesn't always make the best ones. "Because she's so fast, she relies a lot on her defense when really she needs to impose her game because she has a big game.'' It will be interesting to see how her new coach Paul Annacone -- who coached Federer and Sampras -- can help advance her. Stephens is just 21 and still has time, but she can't waste it. As Fernandez said, "I feel like sometimes the young players feel like they have a lot of time, but time goes fast, too. You need that sense of urgency and discipline early.''

Wilansky: And Donald Young, a player as well-known for his shortcomings as he was for his precocious talent, knows this better than anyone. After his convincing win against Feliciano Lopez on Thursday, he said, he'd like a do-over. "You know, at one time, I was a lot better than a lot of my peers and you can rest on your laurels a little bit," Young said. "I maybe didn't work as hard as I could have and gotten better and trained harder." The good news for Young, who is, amazingly, still only 24, is that he has more time to heed his new work-ethic outlook. And hopefully Stephens, who is three years younger, will, too. My concern with Stephens has been her ongoing negative energy, which has been well-documented. And going back to last year, you have to wonder if Stephens' win against Serena at the Aussie Open was too much, too fast. We handed her the torch before she was ready to take it, and coming into Paris, her professional decorum and interest (or lack thereof) have been questioned -- and rightfully so. Evert, who did give the edge to Stephens over Townsend in the shot-making category, seemed a little puzzled as to why Sloane hasn't been able to play with the same year-round intensity as she has been the past few days. But on the flipside, Evert was a big fan of Townsend's "mental capacity."

Caple: And maybe Townsend's emergence is just the little nudge Stephens needs. Now maybe she'll look at the attention shifting to Townsend and say, "Wait a second. I've accomplished more than she has. I'm the better player. And now I'm going to show you.''

Wilansky: Wouldn't that be something? Given their age and talent, this would make for an exciting rivalry, not just in the U.S., but across all borders. As it stands now, we don't have any must-see WTA matchups, at least any that have shown they have any legs. Serena, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova have had a compelling competitive triangle, but one that has had as many lulls as it has memorable moments. It's impossible to say whether Stephens-Townsend will come to fruition, but based on what we've seen here, if it does, we'll have plenty to write about moving forward.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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