Sports

A Decade After U.S.T.A. Sidelined Her, Taylor Townsend Is Moving On, in Life and in Tournaments

MELBOURNE, Australia — Taylor Townsend is getting very good at moving on.

It is happening more and more these days in tennis tournaments, including this year’s Australian Open, where she will play her second-round match Thursday after destroying Diane Parry, a promising French 20-year-old, in every possible way Tuesday. And she has moved on from the body-shaming and benching by the United States Tennis Association a decade ago, when she was just 16 years old.

Townsend, a 26-year-old mother of a toddler, delivered a thorough and merciless beating to Parry during a 67-minute, 6-1, 6-1 rout. Her powerful serve topped out at 116 miles per hour, and her lacing backhand painted the lines; Parry never figured out how to handle Townsend’s whipping forehand and could not reach the precise volleys. The win was her first in the main singles draw of a Grand Slam tournament in three years, and the first since Townsend, ranked 135th in the world, became a mother in March 2021.

“Taylor is a top-20 player who right now is not in the top 20,” John Williams, Townsend’s coach, said moments after she finished off Parry with her seventh ace. “If you’re that kind of player, you should do top-20 things, like she did today.”

Townsend has been the best of the best before, on the junior level. But then she — and her still-developing teenage body — became an early flash point in the debate about what top athletes are supposed to look like, and how much coaches should push their own definitions of fitness on young women.

In 2012, Townsend, a star of the U.S.T.A.’s then four-year-old development program, was the No. 1 junior player in the world. That January, she was the girls’ singles champion at the Australian Open. In July 2012, she won the girls’ doubles title at Wimbledon with Eugenie Bouchard of Canada.

But just weeks later, as The Wall Street Journal revealed, after a loss in the first round of qualifying at a lower-tier professional event in Canada, coaches at the U.S.T.A. decided the 16-year-old Townsend needed to work on her fitness. They requested her to pull out of the national girls championships and sent her back to their training center in Boca Raton, Fla.

Townsend was the girls’ singles champion of the Australian Open in 2012.Credit…Lucas Dawson/Getty Images

They turned her down that August when she asked for a wild-card entry into the main draw of the U.S. Open, a spot she could have earned had she won the national girls title. They refused to cover her expenses to play in the U.S. Open girls tournament. She paid her own way, made the quarterfinals of the singles tournament and won the doubles.

Flash forward a decade, to last September. Townsend is standing at midcourt in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open, accepting the runner-up trophy in the women’s doubles tournament with her partner, her fellow American Caty McNally.

The master of ceremonies for the trophy presentation is Patrick McEnroe. Ten years ago, he was the general manager of the U.S.T.A.’s player development program, the guy who sent Townsend back to Boca Raton.

The 2023 Australian Open

The year’s first Grand Slam tennis tournament runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.

  • Missing Stars: Carlos Alcaraz, Naomi Osaka and Nick Kyrgios have all pulled out of the tournament. Alcaraz’s withdrawal means that the Australian Open will be without the men’s No. 1 singles player.
  • Talent From China: Shang Juncheng, once the world’s top-ranked junior, is the youngest member of a promising new wave of players that also includes Wu Yibing and Zhang Zhizhen.
  • Holger Rune’s Rise: Last year, the 19-year-old broke into the top 10, but not without some unwanted attention. We spoke to the young Dane ahead of his second Australian Open.
  • Ben Shelton Goes Global: The 20-year-old American is ranked in the top 100 after a late-season surge last year. Now, he is embarking on his first full season on tour.

“I’ve put in the work, I’ve earned my way to be here, and I think everyone sees that,” Townsend said that day, wearing a body suit without a sponsor name in sight that has become her signature outfit of choice. “And I’m going to continue to put my head down and grind, and this is going to motivate me to go even harder. So watch out for 2023.”

Townsend said Tuesday that, until it was pointed out to her, she was not aware of the moment’s awkwardness, her steely stare while on the podium and the seeming chill between her and McEnroe. What she said in that trophy presentation was about making one thing clear to herself and anyone listening.

“I’m coming,” she said, sitting on a couch in a lounge above a steamy Melbourne Park after her first-round win. “Everything that I’m working for, all of the goals and everything that I’m doing, is slowly aligning, and I don’t know when it will happen, but I’m coming, and you know to be ready and to be on the lookout because I know inside of myself what I can do and I know, that you don’t know the timing. I believe that things will happen.”

Townsend and her doubles partner, Caty McNally, were interviewed on the court at the U.S. Open by Patrick McEnroe, who was the general manager of the U.S.T.A.’s player development program 10 years ago.Credit…Danielle Parhizkaran/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

In a text message from Connecticut, where he is working as part of ESPN’s television coverage of the Australian Open, McEnroe said all he had ever wanted for Townsend was success at the highest level. Asked whether his perspective on the fitness issue had changed, McEnroe said:

“I could not be happier to see Taylor back on the courts, and continuing to do well. I have always, and will always, continue to wish her nothing but the best on and off the court.” That, he said, has always been his perspective on the issue.

Every tennis journey is unique. The sport can seem like a conveyor belt of prodigies who survive the gantlet of development programs and academies followed by years of dues-paying and ropes-learning in the hinterlands, and finally the promised land of the pro tours and the Grand Slam tournaments. Each one has its own bends and twists, setbacks and injuries.

Townsend’s, though, is as different as they come. A childhood in Chicago; the pinnacle of junior tennis and the birth of her pro career as a teen in Florida, despite the body-shaming; then several years of struggling to figure out what kind of player she was during the first part of her career; a mother at 24; a stint as a television analyst during her maternity leave; a rise to the top echelon of doubles; and now a slow and steady re-emergence as a singles player. Her goal, she said, is to be better than she was before she left the sport to have her baby.

She is getting closer. Last year, Townsend won two tournaments at the International Tennis Federation level, the sport’s third tier. She also made the round of 16 at the Silicon Valley Classic.

Williams said Townsend has achieved “clarity” in the last year about who she is on the court. She is an all-court player with a big serve and a powerful forehand that can be especially dangerous since it comes off her left hand and punishes right-handed backhands when she fires it across the court.

“The quality of her ball was hard to control,” Parry said Tuesday.

Townsend was scheduled to play Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia in the second round on Thursday.

As a top doubles player — she and the American Asia Muhammad are seeded 12th in Melbourne — Townsend can come forward when she needs to, as well. In every match, she wants to be the one to dictate the play.

Townsend and McNally were runners-up at the U.S. Open in September.Credit…Al Bello/Getty Images

“She got away from that for a little while,” said Williams, who first worked with Townsend in 2009.

Townsend represented the United States at the Billie Jean King Cup last year, enjoying the full embrace of the U.S.T.A. The organization has offered her and Williams whatever resources it can provide to assist in her continuing evolution.

Kathy Rinaldi, the national coach for women’s tennis at the U.S.T.A., calls or texts Townsend after all her matches. She has noticed Ola Malmqvist, the organization’s director of coaching, watching her play. Townsend said she has no hard feelings. She wanted to take control of her narrative the same way she tries to take control of matches, to make it mean what she wanted it to mean, and she did.

“We’re seeing people succeed who look totally different than the normal, from all industries, from athletics, sports, entertainment, acting, everything,” she said. “The fact that I could be a part of that and to live it and just to be an example for people, that’s the biggest thing for me.”

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