By Jane Voigt
March 24, 2017 — Taylor Townsend was one of those juniors American tennis had hoped and prayed for. At 15 she was number-one in the world. Then the U.S.T.A. discriminated against her. The reason? She was fat.
Being overweight in any sport attracts attention, unless you’ve chosen shot put or Sumo wrestling. Then, by all means, pack it on. But Townsend was brilliant and successful at tennis yet she wasn’t model thin. On top of that, she was African American in a sport that still requires, at some facilities the most famous being Wimbledon, that people wear all-white clothing, an ironic carry over from centuries-old tennis decorum.
So five years ago, as the top-ranked junior, Townsend thought she would be rewarded a wildcard entry into either the main draw or the qualification draw at the U.S. Open. What could possibly be wrong with that expectation? She had won the singles and doubles junior titles at The Australian Open and the junior doubles title at Wimbledon. But the U.S.T.A., the governing body of American tennis and gatekeeper of who gets preferential treatment at the Open, denied the Chicago teen both requests.
That’s not all the U.S.T.A. was up to.
During the same summer, it had withdrawn travel funds for Townsend and requested that she skip the U.S.Open, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Her coaches declined to pay her travel expenses to attend the Open and told her this summer that they wouldn’t finance any tournament appearances until she makes sufficient progress in one area: slimming down and getting into better shape. (The Wall Street Journal via SI.com)
“‘Patrick McEnroe, then the director of player development at the U.S.T.A., claimed that anemia was slowing Townsend down. But he later acknowledged that the coaches felt that Townsend was overweight and not working hard enough in the gym,’” reported The New York Times today.
Townsend did play the junior singles tournament in New York that year, compliments of her family. She lost in the quarterfinals.
The fallout for Townsend devastated her. At the same time, the reasoning behind Richard Williams’ choice became clear. He did not raise his daughters — Serena and Venus — under the U.S.T.A. brand. Less chance for discrimination. No federation to rule over young player development. They were free to improve on their own, looking as they did.
Townsend, though, has learned to fight back over three years of coach changes and sinking rankings. She’s learned to remove herself from the self-conforming norms expected by the U.S.T.A. and to rely on her strengths in body and mind. She accepted her lowest ranking — in the 300s — early in 2016. She is now ranked No. 111, but continues to fight the notion she should have achieved more, after having been on tour five years … a different type of bias.
“‘In this sport if you’ve been on tour for three or four years and you don’t reach a certain pinnacle in your career, you’re doing bad, you’re old or you’re washed up,’” Townsend said, The New York Times reported. “‘I’ve heard that so many times, I don’t even think about that stuff anymore.’”
Apparently her thinking is right on course, as well as her lefty tennis. Today she defeated the 2015 U.S. Open finalist, Roberta Vinci (No. 25), 6-3, 6-2, to earn her first-ever berth in the third round of the Miami Open. After two rounds of qualification, that means Townsend has played four rounds.
Her improvement is partially due to her reunion with Donald Young Sr., after having worked alongside Zina Garrison for a number of years. Young has dug deep to re-build Townsend’s game, returning her to a time when she controlled points with spin and charges to the net. Taylor’s rise in the ranks is also attributable to her willingness to play qualifying matches for challenger-level tournaments.
“‘She was broken in every way,’” Young said of Townsend, who is the father and coach for his son, Donald Young Jr., as well.
Taylor will turn 21 on April 16, hardly old by any standard. According to the trend of older players dominating major victories — Serena Williams and Roger Federer — Townsend has a decade of tennis on the horizon. “‘I set little goals,’” she said. “‘Like staying positive. Right now I’m in a great space. I’m happy. I have great people around me. I don’t have anything to prove, except to myself.’”
If her performance in Miami is any indication, Townsend has already proven her worth for the time being. Next up for the American is either Svetlana Kuznetsova (No. 7), Indian Wells finalist, or 74th-ranked Mandy Minella of Luxembourg.