Helping hand for Taylor Townsend
Taylor Townsend wasn't always a natural on the tennis court.
"My balance was really off, and I was always falling when I tried to hit the ball," the 17-year-old said. "I was really bad at first. I couldn't even make contact."
But Townsend, who last year became the first American girl in 30 years to hold the year-end No. 1 juniors ranking, found a fast fix.
She switched hands.
The lefty, who is entered in the women's doubles tournament with fellow American Mallory Burdette at the 2013 US Open, had tried to learn the game with her right hand as 6-year-old.
"Once I could stand on two feet and hit," she said, "that's when I started having fun."
With help from coach Donald Young Sr., a friend of Townsend's mother, Taylor started making noise on the national level when she was 12.
"When I started playing well, I just wanted to play and compete all the time," she said.
Practicing at Jackson Park during the summer and hitting indoors at Hyde Park during the winter in her hometown of Chicago, she said it was her coach's son who served as inspiration early on. Donald Young Jr., who turned pro at 15, often played on the same courts as Townsend.
"As the No. 1 junior in the world, he was my idol," said Townsend, who later moved to Atlanta and now lives in Florida. "Looking at him and all of his accomplishments, I really wanted to do the same things."
As Townsend has worked her way up the rankings, both competition and criticism have fueled her passion to play. Not fitting the stereotypical tennis physique, she battled naysayers by letting her performances do the talking.
One of those battles was with an unexpected opponent: the USTA. One year ago, the organization declined to pay for her expenses to play at the US Open and encouraged her to skip it to work on her fitness.
"While I definitely went through my own trials and tribulations dealing with image and self-confidence, now I just say, 'You can think whatever you want to think,'" Townsend said. "I've backed up what I can do, and I'll continue to show up any doubters on the court."
Having artfully turned negative feedback into motivational fodder, Townsend says adversity has created a stronger sense of her mission in the sport.
"I'm glad I'm able to use myself as a platform to inspire other kids," she said. "With the high demand for looks and marketability, I want to be able to help girls coming up in sports."
Hardship, she says, brings out her best.
"Even when you're having a good day, things can go bad and you have to fight your way back," she said. "It has molded me mentally to stay strong, keep working and know it will eventually pay off."
It is this larger purpose and her devotion to the game that keeps her hitting the courts day in and day out as she vies to one day be the No. 1 player in the world.
"I just love it. I love the competition. I love the physical training and always trying to get better. I even love the mental aspects of the game," she said. "The only thing I really hate is losing."