Does the WTA have a weight problem?
Ever since Patrick McEnroe and the USTA refused to fund Taylor Townsend's US Open appearance a few years ago causing the likes of Martina Navratilova and Lindsay Davenport to lead the backlash against his picking on a then 17 year old girl no one has wanted to discuss the issues of fitness in the WTA. Yet very, very quietly the top women players have whittled themselves down to atheltic fitness. Gone are the paunches, love handles and flabby butts that used to be associated with the WTA. Instead you have the athletically fit like Caroline Wozniacki, or the thin and fit like Serena Williams. I can hear the screams from the bleachers going "Serena Williams is thin and fit?!"
I will argue yes she is, for her body type. She will never be whippet thin like Maria Sharapova and she could do herself serious harm if she tried to emulate the Russian's body type. But Serena is fit, make no mistake about it, and her play at her age shows that.
So what made me decide to be the one to tackle this issue today? Two players really: Petra Kvitova and Taylor Townsend. What does a two time Wimbledon champion have in common with a player ranked around 130 in the world and heading in the wrong direction at the moment? Sadly it seems to be an aversion to the hard work necessary to be a top tennis player in 2015.
Let's be frank. If Martina Navratilova were starting out today in the same physical shape she was in when she began main tour play she'd be run off the court. Lindsay Davenport was the butt of many snide remarks by male tennis players (many of whom were not in any better shape than she was by the way) and held up as all that was wrong with women's tennis. Why was Marion Bartoli's Wimbledon win so widely ridiculted? Her fitness, or lack thereof was what was cited by those who were honest enough to say so.
Some will say I'm fatshaming these women but that is not my intention. Women have a right to look however they want and deal with the consequences. Women claiming to be professional athletes are rightly held to a different standard. So let's talk about fitness and women's tennis.
I'll start with Kvitova, the higher ranked of the two players under discussion. She's been in the top 10 for a few years now. She's won two Wimbledon titles, all with a catalog of physical ills including asthma. But the main problem for Kvitova has been her lack of fitness.
You don't have to look back too far to find pictures of her with a gut. Sorry but that's what it was. She could hit the snot out of the ball but get her moving and she was soon out of breath and out of the tournament. When she won her second Wimbledon the talk about her fitness quieted down and when she hired the fitness trainer who whipped Li Na into shape, Alex Stober, she showed up in Australia the fittest she's ever been. She also crashed out of the AO early after winning Sydney.
Then the weird stuff started. Petra declared herself "exhausted" from all the physical training and promptly went on a sabbatical from tennis not to return until Fed Cup. During her sabbatical there were comments attributed to her saying that the new regimen was too hard for her. Many of her fans began talking about her inherent laziness. Others began to talk about the lack of a world class team around her saying that the team did nothing to encourage her to see that getting more fit would extend and improve her play outside of majors.
Whatever was going on today her team confirmed that Stober was not longer working with Kvitova, the implication being that he was not the right person to oversee Kvitova's health regimen. It was odd because he was there with her in Stuttgart but failed to show in Madrid, where she won. Why was a world class fitness coach deemed wrong for Kvitova? I have no inside knowledge and can only go by what those who follow her closely say. It all comes down, in their opinion, to lack of professionalism by the player and the team she wants around her. It could be. Is she, like Simona Halep, more comfortable with her homies than with outsiders? Again, I don't know. She showed up during Fed Cup and in her recent tournaments appearing to be in fairly decent shape. The love handles were back but the gut is still that of a professional athlete. Time will tell if dismissing Stober was a good decision or not.
The situation with Taylor Townsend is a little more complex. Was Patrick McEnroe wrong to demand Townsend work on her fitness? Was her family wrong to take the matter public and cause PMac to be vilified and let Taylor off the hook regarding her fitness? With hindsight I'm going to say PMac was right and the Townsend family did their talented child no favors by shaming McEnroe.
The favorite line of Townsend defenders is "look at Serena". Serena was never as heavy as Townsend is. She's been heavier than she is now but she was never to the point where the "f" word was being used. People are now openly using that word to describe Taylor.
A better comparison for Townsend would be Kaia Kanepi. After suffering from many injuries that could be ascribed to her being overweight for an athlete she is now in shape but it's late in her career and while she has had some good results she's never played up to her potential. I'm not sure we will ever be able to say that about Townsend.
I was very disappointed to learn that Zina Garrison was no longer working with Taylor and that she was now working withi Donald Young Sr. I see no upside in this collaboration. I see Taylor thinking she can keep doing what she's been doing and not having to have pressure put on her about getting in shape. A nineteen year old should not be lugging around a gut. A nineteen year old athlete is delusional if she thinks that all that extra weight doesn't affect her play. Watching Taylor play last week it seems to me she's regressed play wise and weight wise and it made me sad.
One of the best comments I read was by a fan calling himself "HowardH". I'm not going to paraphrase. Here is his comment that I've edited for brevity and specificity.
Actually, becoming fitter will definitely make someone a better player. That's why there are almost no unfit male pros left. The level became too high and the players who didn't work on their fitness got left behind. Gone are the days of just getting by on your natural talent like 30 years ago. You have to work hard or you lose.
The problem is that when you are unfit and you train hard, for the first few months you are really exhausted. But after some months you start to really reap the benefits. Your body is finally adjusted to the new training, you aren't tired anymore, it's so easy to run fast. But you have to get through that initial period. Once you have experienced what it's like to be super fit you never want to go back, and you know for a fact that everything is easier when you are super fit. Petra hasn't experienced that yet so she doesn't know what she's missing out on.
Truer words were never written. It would do both Petra and Taylor good to read them, to let them sink in, to stop bullshitting themselves. Both women are very talented. It would be a shame to let something they have control over stop them from being the best they can be.