Thursday, September 6, 2012

Can We Be Serious?

by Savannah

I was wrong. In looking at the up and coming young American women I criticized Taylor Townsend for being overweight, too heavy to play competitive tennis.

Looking at her without knowing a damn thing about her it was easy for me to take pot shots at a 16 year old girl. I'm posting this article from the Wall Street Journal in it's entirety. It needs to be read by anyone who considers themselves a serious tennis fan.

Thanks to Lindsay Davenport for bringing attention to this article. And thanks to Tom Perrota for writing it.

Teenage girls face so many issues - looks, body image, where am I going in this world. The last thing a girl needs is bullying.

I apologize Taylor. You are ready to step into the top ranks of a very difficult sport. You need to know that there are many people behind you.


As the U.S. Tennis Association continues its struggle to reverse the declining fortunes of American tennis, it seems fair to assume that 16-year-old Taylor Townsend would be welcome to play anywhere she likes.

The Chicago-born tennis prodigy, who is part of a four-year-old USTA-funded development program, is the world's No. 1 junior girls' player, the reigning junior Australian Open singles champion and the junior Wimbledon doubles champion.

Thursday, she won two matches at the U.S. Open's junior tournament, the last a dominating two-set victory over Mexico's Marcela Zacarias in which she pumped her fist after winners and jogged to her chair for every changeover.

But unbeknownst to everyone outside her inner circle, the USTA wasn't happy to see Townsend in New York. 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.

"Our concern is her long-term health, number one, and her long-term development as a player," said Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of the USTA's player development program. "We have one goal in mind: For her to be playing in [Arthur Ashe Stadium] in the main draw and competing for major titles when it's time. That's how we make every decision, based on that."

Townsend's mother, Shelia, who played tennis at Lincoln University, has not discussed the situation publicly before. This week she said she'd been baffled by the USTA's decision. "It all kind of came as a shock to us because Taylor has consistently done quite well," she said. Her daughter, she reminded, "is No. 1, not just in the United States, but in the world."

Before this year's Open, Taylor asked the USTA for a wild-card entry slot in either the Open's main draw or its qualifying tournament, which Taylor had played in last year. Her requests were denied. After the USTA asked Taylor to skip the U.S. Open junior tournament, her mother told them she'd pay her daughter's expenses herself.

The USTA's decision touches on two contentious issues in tennis: the relative importance of player fitness and the best way to develop talent.

Most American tennis prodigies have been developed by private coaches, academies and persistent parents, sometimes with supplemental help from the USTA. In 2008, though, the organization decided it needed to do more about the decline of American tennis and founded its first full-time academy in Boca Raton, Fla., where Townsend is one of 25 select juniors. The USTA also trains 41 juniors in Carson, Calif., and the National Tennis Center in Flushing, the site of the U.S. Open.

By benching Townsend, the USTA seems to be sending a message that developing solid fundamentals (like fitness) is more important for a player's long-term success and longevity than competitive results.

While the sport's top players have taken a noticeable turn in recent years toward greater fitness—a trend typified by lithe specimens like Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka—there's more to winning than subzero body fat. A quick glance around the U.S. Open reveals a fair number of less-chiseled players, such as Marion Bartoli and Stanislas Wawrinka, who both reached the tournament's second week.

On the women's side, former U.S. star Lindsay Davenport became No. 1 while ranking among the largest players on the women's tour at 6-foot-2 and about 175 pounds. And in 2007, Serena Williams won the Australian Open singles title while being in what many experts consider the worst shape of her career.

"You have to be fit underneath, I don't think you necessarily have to look ripped," said former No. 1 Mats Wilander. "Smart players can get away with being a little tired."

It's certainly possible that Townsend's fitness is holding her back, but her results suggest that her current form is more than adequate. In addition to triumphs at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, she made it to the semifinals of the International Spring Championship and won the prestigious Easter Bowl.

After Townsend lost in the first-round of qualifying at a professional event in Vancouver this summer, her coaches asked her to withdraw from the USTA Girls' National Championships in San Diego and return to the USTA's training academy in Boca Raton, where she now lives. She was put on double fitness duty and allowed to play just enough tennis to maintain her timing. "It wasn't my decision," she said. "But they didn't think playing was the best thing, so I went back."

If Townsend had won the San Diego event, she would have received an automatic wild card into the U.S. Open's main draw and with it, a rare chance to be seen by agents and potential sponsors (she currently has no agent). After she returned to Florida, Townsend was diagnosed with low iron during a routine checkup. Shelia Townsend said her daughter is taking iron pills and that the problem is "totally manageable."

Townsend, who possesses a sunny disposition, isn't holding a grudge against the USTA. "I've gotten a lot of great opportunities, great fitness, great coaching," she said. "I'm doing everything that they ask me to do and being professional about everything." Shelia Townsend, who moved to Florida with her daughter and works in the Palm Beach school system, agreed the USTA academy had been good for her daughter. "It has afforded her a lot of opportunities," she said.

Townsend will play Estonia's Anett Kontaveit in the junior Open quarterfinals Friday. She said she was asked to represent the U.S. in a junior Federation Cup event in Spain later this month. Beyond that, however, her schedule is unclear.

McEnroe said his development team still hasn't cleared Townsend for tournament play. "We'll assess when this tournament is over," he said.


Kia said...

I came here this AM specifically to see if you had addressed this and you did not disappoint.

I am all kinds of outraged by this story. I really can't coherently formulate my at this point, but I am so hopeful that Davenport takes Taylor under wing.

Vania King also tweeted that she didn't start a full on exercise regime until she was 19 and that match play is so important for a junior.

I had hopes that the changes to the program were moving things in a positive direction. After all anything that pisses Sean Hannity off is a good thing in my book :)

But any good "vibes" I might have had all completely demolished by this debacle.


Randy Burgess said...

There are some folks born with a body type that will never look "ripped" no matter how much training they do.

Just as an example, I've seen video of some of Bartoli's werid but apparently high productive training routines. They look insanely demanding & exhausting. And given how competitive she is, if there were harder training she could do that would give better results, she'd probably do it.

Maybe what the USTA wants is Barbie dolls it can better market as such.