By Tom Perrotta
The Wall Street Journal reported in Friday’s newspaper that Taylor Townsend, a Chicago native and the No. 1 junior girl tennis player in the world, was benched from tournament play this summer by her coaches at the U.S. Tennis Association because of her fitness. Townsend lost in the quarterfinals of the junior singles tournament Friday afternoon but advanced to the doubles final with her partner, Gabby Andrews.
On Friday, the Journal spoke with Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova, two former No. 1 players and Grand Slam champions who struggled with their weight as teenagers and as pros. Davenport and Navratilova were sharply critical of the USTA’s decision.
“You cannot punish someone for their body type,” Davenport said.
“I’m livid about it. Livid,” Navratilova said. She added: “It speaks of horrible ignorance.”
The Wall Street Journal: You struggled with weight as a junior and a pro. What was it like for you growing up?
Lindsay Davenport: My dad is 6-foot-8. He blew out his knee in 1973, and after bad surgery, an infection ravaged his knee. He hasn’t been able to bend his knee since then. He was probably 150 pounds overweight my whole life. So all through the 80s, when I was a little girl, my dad was huge. My mom was not. But I had this dad with big genes, and we were never thin.
My first year playing the [12-and-under] nationals in Florida [at age 11], another mom reported me for being too old. And I was standing right there, and my mom was like, “I’ve got news for you, she can play next year, too.” And this woman was like, “Oh my gosh!” I had these big, chubby, baby cheeks and people thought that because I was tall and big, I was older.
Martina Navratilova: I put on 20 pounds in two weeks when I first came on the tour. I was 16, I played in Fort Lauderdale and then Dallas. By Dallas, I had to buy myself new shorts because I couldn’t fit into my shorts. I was playing three hours a day of tennis, or more. It was a change of metabolism and a change of diet. I wasn’t eating junk food, either. I was just eating too much. I was eating pancakes and steaks and hamburgers, I discovered corn flakes. It was just a different diet completely. I struggled with my weight for four years after that. I didn’t lose it until I was 20. And really, it just came off by itself. I was training hard and it started coming off in 1976.
How did your coaches approach your development, and how much of that had to do with fitness?
Davenport: There was a female who was in charge of the [USTA] women’s program in the 90s, Lynne Rolley. Lynne stood by me, was like a mother figure to me. I think she saw it as not only developing these great players, but developing us as people, and teaching us, when you walk into a room, look into someone’s eyes. It wasn’t just about trying to get players on Arthur Ashe. No one ever said to me, you’re fat, you’re heavy. Part of it is trying to figure it out on your own and trying to get the player to realize it. You’re dealing with a really difficult age for girls, and you’re talking about a life-changing, detrimental step. You cannot punish someone for their body type.
Navratilova: No matter what, the kid is 16. It’s baby fat, it’s going to come off. She would have to starve to the point of where she can’t play to lose weight, so then she can’t compete. And she’s the No. 1 junior. It is absolutely insane what they did, so irresponsible. If anything, play more. Don’t go into the gym. Just watch [what you eat], but in a positive and constructive and long-term way. But to throw this on her at 16? I’m trying to be nice here, but they totally blew it on this one.
Were there any fitness requirements you had to meet?
Davenport: When I was growing up, we had these USTA camps and a national team, and we would all go to these camps together. And you had to run a mile and a half in a certain time. I could never sleep the night before, I swear to God. I’m not a runner. I could hit the ball really well, and I liked to play tennis, but it was all getting too serious for me. I’ll never forget the anxiety I would feel the night before a run. And the time, whatever it was, it’s such a doable number now, but I’d be crying and stressed about it. And they would threaten that you couldn’t stay on the team. It didn’t happen, so I don’t know if I made the time, or they just kind of overlooked it.
When were your worst struggles with weight?
Davenport: I won the nationals at 15 [in the 18-and-under division]. My heaviest was more at 18, 19, when my parents were getting divorced. But I was never slim. I had an obese father, and we had a great childhood, but a good diet was not part of it, even though I was an athlete. I was not svelte at 15, and I was not fit at 15. If they had told me I could not play, I mean, that could have ruined my career.
There were definitely people within the USTA who didn’t think I had a chance to make it. I was very fortunate that I had Lynne, who was like, “This girl is doing great, she’s a nice girl, why wouldn’t we help her?” You just can’t turn your back on someone when they’re doing well and they’re a great kid. They’ve helped people with the worst attitudes, and that is way worse to me than someone’s body type.
Navratilova: What really pisses me off about this is, OK, weight is obvious, but what about attitude? Can we talk about other kids who they have been supporting for years whose attitude sucks and they still support them? I’m livid about it. Livid.
Is there a “too early” for off-court training like a pro would do?
Navratilova: Absolutely. Absolutely. I say play other sports, because that helps you become a better athlete, and most of all it makes you happy. I didn’t do core training when I was 16, I was climbing trees. I was swimming in the river, I was playing hockey, I played soccer, I road my bicycle a lot and then I played tennis. I did weight training like two weeks a year.
Davenport: I think the time is in your late teens. If you look at Martina Hingis, that great year she had in 1997, she was a twig, but it was just her tennis. Everyone has started doing things earlier, but that pressure is just exploding, and the long-term consequences of what potentially just happened I think are far worse than the benefit.
How much does fitness matter in tennis, say from your days on tour compared to now?
Davenport: It seems to have gone to where it’s a bit more than in the 90s, but it’s still about hitting the ball well. It’s still, in women’s tennis, about the chance to overpower someone. Certainly it’s a more important component when you get older, but it’s not that important when you’re 15, 16 years old. And I think that we’ve seen cases, Martina [Navratilova], myself, where people get over that, and we’ve seen the opposite where eating disorders occur.
[Taylor] is a baby to me. I couldn’t imagine, if someone did that to one of my kids, that would be the end of it. It’s horrible to put that kind of pressure on someone. I can’t imagine at 16 what my parents would have done.
What does a kid like Taylor, at her age, need most?
Davenport: I might take it the opposite way. They need love and support and good role models, and good role models aren’t people who punish and don’t allow things to happen. What really helped for me to lose weight was to try to have fun in the beginning, and just learning things like, you don’t want to eat bread at dinner. You just need to nurture them and I think that’s how it gets better.
If the goal is developing top pros, is that too narrow, or missing the bigger picture?
Davenport: Their whole goal should be to try to develop this player into the best player they can be, and the best person and try to teach them tools to go through life, and hopefully that includes playing in Arthur Ashe Stadium. If this is the player you’re choosing to help, you think they’re going to be good, it’s up to you to make them get there, to bring out their best as a coach.
Bringing out their best isn’t making them feel bad about themselves and having a horrible self-image. You get it out of them by getting them happy, by getting them excited to play, not by tearing them down.
Navratilova: It speaks of horrible ignorance.