Townsend sees good in 2012's trial
LONDON -- It's still new territory for them. And there's no how-to manual on handling it when you think your daughter, your teenager, is being told she's out of shape or worse, too heavy.
Ten months later, it is all behind them, no hard feelings, they say, all a misunderstanding. But what happened between 17-year-old Taylor Townsend and the U.S. Tennis Association -- which oversees her training and, for now, her career -- was as important as it was initially disturbing.
And the reaction is inspiring.
A second Wimbledon
It is the second round of Wimbledon's junior girls' tournament and Townsend is doing what the best junior tennis player in the world does -- move. All over the court. With deft drop shots and sharp volleys and powerful groundstrokes, there is an unmistakable athleticism that allows her to play defense as well as offense. And she has the smarts to know when to do each.
She is also exuberant and as joyful at times as she is angry at others. That will have to be toned down at some point, but at 17, if Townsend is not yet playing regularly in main draws of Grand Slam tournaments like Wimbledon, it's not because she isn't capable.
She is the first American junior to be ranked No. 1 in the girls' rankings at year's end since 1982. She is a girl with greatness stamped all over her.
"I love Taylor," said Mary Joe Fernandez, coach of the U.S. Federation Cup team. "I love her attitude. She has the confidence, she comes at you. She told me yesterday, 'By the way, when I play Fed Cup, I'm ready to make my speech.' I always make the rookies give a speech. She's so confident, I love that about her. And she's got a great game. She's aggressive, she loves the net, she's a lefty, which I think gives her a little bit of an advantage, especially on grass."
Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of the USTA's junior development program, also likes what he sees.
"I think she's got a great tennis IQ, No. 1," he said as he prepared to call a men's doubles semifinal for ESPN. "The other thing I think you look at with young kids is their passion for tennis and she has both of those. She also has great skills. I hit with her one morning last week on the indoor courts and she really likes to learn. Every coach that we've had that has worked for her loves her attitude and her interest in tennis and the way she goes about it.
"So she has all the tools and now it's the same issue as with any other player, just learning and adjusting."
Townsend would win her second- and third-round matches to advance to the quarterfinals against Barbora Krejcikova. It was another win, 6-2, 7-6(4), Thursday.
"This is my second Wimbledon. I love it," she said. "I swear, it will shock me for years, just the environment, the atmosphere, the class, the all-white. It doesn't matter if you play it 15 times or two times, it's amazing."
Root of the problem
Townsend says she is in the best shape of her life, which sounds as funny as it is true.
"Definitely, I see huge improvements in myself, but I'm never content," she said. "I want to continue to work and try to get in the best shape I possibly can and continue to develop my game, continue to work on my all-court game, coming to the net, approach, transition, working on my serve, continue to critique and kind of tweak things here and there until you get it solid."
A year ago, she was anything but solid. Instead, she was slow, weak and tired and didn't know why. As the U.S. Open juniors approached, the USTA encouraged her to skip it and work on her fitness. More accurately, they discouraged it by declining to pay for her expenses, with McEnroe telling the Wall Street Journal at the time: "Our concern is her long-term health, No. 1, and her long-term development as a player. 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."
The Townsends paid their own way to the U.S. Open and it soon became public, with former players such as Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova rushing to Taylor's defense and condemning the USTA's actions.
Before the tournament, however, the family had learned the true source of Taylor's fatigue and seemingly poor conditioning: a severe iron deficiency that nearly required a blood transfusion.
"It was a very serious situation," Taylor's mom, Shelia, recalled.
"Nobody knew what it was, so we thought it was fitness, but it was actually health-related," Taylor said. "Now I'm totally fine. I take oral iron and I have to get my iron checked every once in a while to make sure the levels are high so that we don't get back to that stage because it was so scary."
Taylor felt fine once treated and played in the U.S. Open. The USTA apologized and reimbursed the Townsends for their expenses, Shelia said. But the damage had been done. The way it was interpreted, McEnroe and the USTA told the teenager she was too heavy and out of shape.
"It's amazing how the headlines sort of went in that direction," McEnroe said. "That has never been an issue for us; we would never go that way for many, many reasons. But No. 1, we always try to do what's best for the player. So we understand all the things it takes and all the different issues that are there."
While McEnroe was criticized, those who spoke out have had to take the behind-the-scenes repercussions for calling the USTA irresponsible. But now, while everyone treads lightly on the subject -- the Townsends taking the high road and the USTA saying all the right things -- people such as Davenport are seeing to it that the message was not lost.
"In my teens, I wasn't as fit as I could be, but you don't always know what's going on with 17-, 18- and 19-year-old girls," said Davenport, who is doing analysis this week for Tennis Channel. "Everybody is different; your body shape is different. Right now it might be perceived as not being in good shape but that's not always it."
Davenport, winner of three Grand Slam singles titles and an Olympic gold medal, is a former world No. 1. She is now the mother of three children under 7, two of them girls. She recalls always being tall for her age (she is now 6-foot-2) and having "not the cookie-cutter" athlete's body.
"I put on some weight when I was 18 and my parents were going through a divorce," she said. "They had been married 20-some years and it was obviously just a tough time in my family. Also, like most 18-year-olds going off to college, I was living on my own for the first time and it kind of happens. I just happened to be one of the best tennis players in the world, so I was getting judged more harshly."
The point, said Davenport, is: "I got much better at it from 22 on. I learned, grew up, figured out, OK, this is what I want to do with my life and not just what I'm doing because I happen to be good at it."
In other words, it became her decision. As an adult. Common sense, perhaps, but someone needed to be outraged for Taylor and the way the message was originally interpreted. And in a sport that hasn't demonstrated a whole lot of women supporting women (see: Sloane Stephens vs. Serena Williams; Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova; everyone vs. the Williams sisters), it was important, necessary and good to hear.
"It was nice to hear from them and just to know they know what's going on," Taylor said. "To be honest, that kind of opened up the lines of communication because after that I started talking to Martina and Lindsay more, so it was actually nice. There were some positives that came out of it."
Clearing the air
McEnroe says he went to Boca Raton, Fla., to meet with Shelia after the Open.
"We both had some issues and Taylor was right, it was good to clear the air," he said. "It opened me up to communicate with her, which I did in the offseason when she was trying to figure out what was best for her schedule. It's always been and always will be for us a two-way street."
Shelia Townsend said "there are no bad feelings" between the family and the USTA.
"We're still learning and finding out the things she has to do for her body type," she said.
"I've just tried to let her know that everybody's going to have an opinion and something negative to say. I just didn't want someone else's opinion to have a negative impact on her."
Taylor, who reportedly was devastated at being kept from the Open initially, says she was "over it" by the time she got to Flushing Meadows.
"You can look at it in a bad way but personally I'm taking a positive out of it," she said. "To be honest, I don't really care anymore. It was a huge misunderstanding but the one thing is I'm happy with the USTA, they're happy with me, we're all working together and I'm healthy. That's all I care about."
"It was a tough time," said McEnroe, "definitely difficult. But to her point, I think in some ways, it was a positive."
Taylor says her fitness and conditioning is "huge. And we're definitely on the right path."
"I see tremendous improvements in myself already on the court," she said. "But I think there's a long way to go and there's a long, long stretch where you just have to work really hard and develop a solid base.
"These ladies and men have years under their belt of just preseason working so their bodies are like machines. So I think the faster we can get that base and be able to know you can compete at the highest level for as much time as you need, when you get that feeling, that's when you know you're ready."