Taylor Townsend building confidence
PARIS -- Whether the words come from a doctor, spouse, parent, sibling, friend or just a petty classmate, no one likes to be told they can afford to lose some weight. To mix in a salad every now and then. But it's especially hard for a teenage girl to hear such a thing. And much, much worse, to have it become fodder for the national media.
So imagine what it was like for Taylor Townsend last year, when at age 16 and ranked No. 1 among juniors, stories appeared about how the United States Tennis Association did not want her to play in the US Open because it had concerns over her fitness.
"It was really tough," Townsend said. "This is an age where you're really self-conscious, especially being a girl. It's a really sensitive subject for girls especially. It was really hurting me, because first of all, I'm not built like all these girls. They're all skinny, they're all, like, tall. I'm short and I'm built. I'm muscular. I can't do anything about it. That's how I'm built.
"It sucked because I didn't know what they wanted. I was working my butt off. I didn't know what else they wanted me to do. But now, I don't care. People can talk and say whatever they want to say because I go out on the court every day and I bust my butt, and I know it doesn't matter what other people think."
Townsend went to the US Open anyway and the USTA said it fully supported her after she had received medical clearance to play. She lost in the quarterfinals for singles but won the doubles title with Gabrielle Andrews. Since then, she's been on a new training program with the USTA that includes exercises to emphasize the power in her legs and upper body, plus distance running to improve her endurance.
"I like it now. Before, I hated it, I'm not going to lie to you," she said. "I see a difference. I feel a difference on the court. I know the hard work will pay off. I feel a difference, and that's the biggest thing for me. Being able to last longer."
She's noticed a difference on the clay courts here. "I've been able to get to more balls than normal. Especially on the drop shots and stuff like that. Even though I miss them every time I get to them. But at least I touch them," she said, laughing.
A cheerful girl who jokes and laughs easily, Townsend said that she and the USTA have a very good relationship. She's having a great time in Paris, where she can look out her hotel window and see the Eiffel Tower before she goes to Roland Garros, where she has been dispatching opponents in the junior bracket as her family looks on.
Townsend advanced to the juniors quarterfinals Tuesday afternoon, then rushed to prepare herself for a formal world champions dinner. Wearing a white dress, she looked spectacular, like a Hollywood star on the runway.
Townsend is not the prototypical leggy, trim tennis player. She carries weight around her middle. She is more Serena than Sharapova.
To put in a term you might hear while touring the Louvre, she is Rubenesque.
"She may not look like anybody else," said her father, Gary Townsend, a high school principal who played basketball and baseball in college. "But put her up against anybody in a mile [run], or anybody in a match, and she's not going to wither. She's not the littlest girl in the world. In the end, though, she's still a girl. She hasn't gotten that grown woman's body yet. She just turned 17. She's still a kid. I look for different things in the years to come. She'll probably look a lot different when she's 20 than at 17. More defined. It comes with age."
Tennis is not baseball. You don't get to stand around and chew sunflower seeds. You must move your body. You must run and jump and turn. And you must do so for hours at a time. Regardless of preconceptions about shape and figure, you do not win consistently on the world stage unless you have a high level of fitness.
"That's the one thing I tell my players in Fed Cup. There are two things you can control in tennis: your attitude and your fitness," Fed Cup coach Mary Joe Fernandez said. "When you get out there you can't control whether somebody aces you or hits a winner on you, but you do have to do your hard work to do everything possible to be as fit as you can be and have the best attitude. That's not just Taylor. That goes for Jamie Hampton, Sloane Stephens and down the line to all the girls. Can she get fitter? Sure. They all can get fitter."
Asked whether fitness is more of an issue for Townsend, Fernandez said no, that everyone has different body types. "Men and women are different. As you grow, you change. I think she's had a great junior career and she's transitioning to the professional career and I think we're going to see very good things from her."
Patrick McEnroe, the general manager for USTA player development, emphasizes that the USTA's concerns last summer occurred well before the US Open. He said the concerns included some physical issues she had and that they simply wanted her to take a break from competition to work on them.
He is pleased with her progress since then and more interested in discussing her promising future than what happened last summer. Townsend will mix some lower level pro matches into her junior schedule then likely go exclusively pro next year.
"I think her future is extremely bright," McEnroe said. "She's very smart, very engaging, and she loves tennis. That's something you always look for in someone who is young and talented. She has all the shots. But she also has a passion for tennis. She's a competitor. She has an all-around game. And she's a pleasure to work with. Everyone she works with says they love being with her."
Indeed, Fernandez said she was impressed by Townsend the first time she met her roughly three years ago, when Taylor showed up at a Fed Cup event in Birmingham and challenged the Fed doubles team to a game with her partner.
"I loved her attitude and how confident she was," Fernandez said. "She's got great feel, great hands. I think she has a very promising future. She was the No. 1 juniors player in the world last year. That's not an easy task."
Townsend has big aspirations. She wants to be the No. 1-ranked woman in the world. She wants to win several Grand Slams by age 22. She wants her photo on walls and billboards. "I want to be the next big thing."
And she wants to make a statement when she does so.
"Everyone is built differently," she said. "I do want to be an inspiration for other girls who are not built like these girls. Maria Sharapova has, like, the perfect figure. If I can inspire other people to say, 'You don't have to be a toothpick in order to be on billboards,' then I will. But I also want to send a positive message to be confident in yourself and love yourself and love the skin you're in because you can't change it."