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Sunday, September 9, 2012
USTA handling of top junior player causing fits

By Kamakshi Tandon

It was the day of the women's semifinals at the U.S. Open, yet much of the buzz and attention was on a junior player who had just lost in the quarterfinals of the girls' event.

Her name is Taylor Townsend, and she is an American who currently is the world's top-ranked junior. But that wasn't the reason reporters were practically spilling out of the interview booth where her post-match news conference was being held.

It was because news had broken that Townsend had been told by USTA coaches earlier in the summer to stop competing until she got into better shape.

That also meant the organization had declined to pay Townsend's expenses for competing at the U.S. Open, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

There was some back-and-forth between the two sides as the controversy grew. Townsend and her mother, Shelia, a former college player, said the Chicago-born teen had missed the U.S. girls' nationals, where she would have had the opportunity to earn her way into the U.S. Open. A request for a wild card into the main draw or qualifying at Flushing Meadows also was turned down.

Though she remained eligible for the U.S. Open juniors, Townsend's participation in the event was not financed by the USTA, and her mother decided to pay for her trip.

Townsend won two matches on a rain-backlogged Thursday to reach the quarterfinals and won the title in the girls' doubles.

"It's not by a miracle that I got to No. 1," Townsend said.

Meanwhile, USTA player development head Patrick McEnroe said there had been a "miscommunication" over expenses -- the association would reimburse Townsend and was not against her playing the U.S. Open. The USTA's concern is Townsend's long-term development, he added, hence the emphasis on fitness.

Elsewhere, there also were suggestions that concerns over a recently diagnosed iron deficiency played a role in recommending she not compete.

''We're trying to make decisions that we think are in the best interest of the player. Do you think we're sitting around going, 'How can we screw this up?'" McEnroe said.

More concrete details have been scarce, but there's another question: Why did this -- a substantive but nevertheless rather insular episode in American junior tennis development -- pick up steam in the major newspapers and get featured on "Good Morning America?" Because fitness was quickly conflated with weight and all the baggage of body image issues and gender politics that comes with it.

There were various descriptions of Townsend having been told she needed to "lose weight" or "slim down" because she was "too fat" to take part in tournaments. The response was that being skinny is hardly a requirement for success in tennis, with Serena Williams and Lindsay Davenport being trotted out as examples of other physiques that have had enormous success at the pro level.

"You cannot punish someone for their body type," Davenport told the Wall Street Journal, and Martina Navratilova described herself as "livid" that the USTA was making weight, but not attitude, a consideration for financial support.

At the same time, however, both have acknowledged getting into shape played a big role in their career transformations, taking them from contenders to champions. Williams is capable of winning big events whether in or out of shape, but she, too, has enjoyed more consistent success when fit and has begun to put more emphasis on physical training.

And conversely, there was speculation during the U.S. Open that former French Open champion Ana Ivanovic was looking too thin. She said her coaching team was advising her to try to pack on more muscle.

So how do you to separate fat from fitness? The greater physical demands of the women's tour call for better strength and conditioning, but clearly both the physical and psychological require careful management.

On the coaching side, the intent of the message seems clear.

"It has nothing to do with weight, nothing to do with body type," McEnroe insisted. "It has to do with overall fitness, overall what her game is."

But the 16-year-old recipient of that message found it a hard one to hear.

"I was actually very upset. I cried. I was actually devastated," Townsend said. "I mean, I worked really hard, you know."

Townsend's reaction seems to have been less about her figure and more about being told she wasn't up to scratch, though who knows how she was affected by media coverage, which told her she had been told she was "too fat?"

For her part, Townsend admits her fitness is not a strength.

"I'm not going to sit here and say that I couldn't have gotten in better shape or that I couldn't get in better shape," she said. "I'm not going to sit here and say that I'm the fastest person, the most agile, because I'm not.

"There's definitely room for improvement, but it's a personal opinion."

And opinion differs on the balance that should be struck between competition and conditioning at this stage of a player's development, and the amount of control a federation should wield when it funds a junior player.

"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," Davenport said.

"I would have been cut from the USTA program," Navratilova said.

Unlike on court, this is one place where it might be best to tread softly, and forget the big stick.