- Sandra Harwitt
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PARIS -- When Taylor Townsend started the year, she was a fresh-faced 15-year-old ranked No. 25 in the ITF’s world junior rankings.
Less than five months later, Townsend is still fresh-faced, but now 16. And as the No. 1 junior girl in the world, she will be the top seed in the French Open junior girls’ draw that starts on Sunday.
Townsend, who became the first American girl to be ranked No. 1 in the world since the ITF went to a combined junior singles and doubles ranking in 2004, vows she’s ready for the challenge on the red clay.
“I set high expectations for myself for each tournament,” said Townsend, who is most familiar with hard courts. “I've always lived by the motto that I'm not going to go to a tournament if I don't feel like I can do well. ... I'm going to do the best that I can. But I feel like I can do well at this tournament.”
So how did Townsend get to be No. 1?
She did it the old-fashioned way: she earned it. Her bragging rights started by winning the Australian Open singles and doubles titles -- she entered the Aussie Open ranked No. 18 and left Down Under ranked No. 2. The last American junior girl to win the singles and doubles titles at the same grand slam was Lindsay Davenport, who accomplished it at the 1992 U.S. Open.
A victory in the 18s girls draw at the Easter Bowl tournament in April delivered Townsend to the top spot in the world.
Townsend plays a throwback brand of tennis, one that finds her frequently coming to the net, which is rarely seen in today’s game. To facilitate that style, Townsend’s been paying closer attention to her fitness and diet, giving up on her former favorites of McDonald’s and cookie dough ice cream. She’s been working with illustrious fitness trainer Pat Etcheberry in Orlando, as well as her main USTA coach, former player Kathy Rinaldi, at the USTA Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., where she’s lived for the past 19 months.
Patrick McEnroe, the general manager for USTA player development, is a fan of Townsend’s. He believes she is a gifted athlete with a natural flair for the game, possesses a fearless approach to opponents and is willing to accept advice from accomplished sources.
But McEnroe also points out that the leap from successful junior to world-class pro is never a given. Other factors figure into how a junior’s future in the game play out.
“What's going to determine whether or not she makes it to the top of women's tennis is going to be her desire, her work ethic day in and day out,” McEnroe said. “Once you start to make that transition to the pros, it's inevitable that you're going to suffer some losses, have some bumps and bruises along the way. The players [who] are really focused and determined and can go through that have the best chance of making it all the way to the top.”
The good news for Townsend is she appears to have the maturity, the right type of outgoing personality, the ability to make sacrifices and the ambition to traverse the winding road ahead.
But the daughter of a high school principal -- she attended the Charles R. Drew (Riverdale, Ga.) for a few weeks before deciding to leave home to train with the USTA in Boca Raton -- has no plans of rushing into the pros. Things are going well, and while she’ll continue to mix in lower-level pro events to her schedule, she’ll remain put in junior circles for now.
“I like to keep my options open as of right now,” said Townsend, who went to Spain for a week of intensive red-clay training prior to arriving in Paris. “My goal is to go pro. Until I feel like it's the right time, and I consult with my family and everyone, then I'm just going to stay amateur for now.”
For right now, her primary goal is conquering the red clay at Roland Garros as the No. 1 seed. For those who take the time to check out the next generation of players, Townsend will be the focal point. They’ll be watching -- and critiquing -- how she handles the pressure of being the player everyone in the draw is chasing.
“I started off my year great,” Townsend said. “I feel like I can continue that success.”