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Taylor Townsend dispute: USTA cuts funding until No. 1 junior loses weight

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Taylor Townsend

Taylor Townsend, 16, is the world’s top-ranked junior, but the USTA is threatening to cut off support until she loses weight and focuses on her fitness. (Getty Images).

Taylor Townsend is America’s top-ranked junior girl. In fact, at 16, she’s the No. 1 junior girl in the world. At 15, she scored her first pro-level win, beating a player twice her age to progress to the second round of qualifying at the U.S. Open last year. Earlier this year she captured the Australian Open juniors title in both singles and doubles — the first American girl to accomplish that since Lindsay Davenport at the 1992 U.S. Open — and over the summer she won the Wimbledon girls’ doubles title. Not bad, right?

Unfortunately none of these results — Townsend is the first American junior girl to reach No. 1 since the ITF combined singles and doubles rankings in 2004 — is enough to insulate her from criticism from her coaches about her fitness. As Tom Perrotta reports for the Wall Street Journal, the USTA has refused to pay for Townsend’s travel expenses to tournaments like the Girls 18s Nationals and U.S. Open until she loses weight:

Her coaches declined to pay her travel expenses to attend the Open and told her this summer that they wouldn’t finance any tournament appearances until she makes sufficient progress in one area: slimming down and getting into better shape.

“Our concern is her long-term health, number one, and her long-term development as a player,” said Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of the USTA’s player development program. “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.”

When they refused to pay her way to the Open, her mother, Shelia, had to step up to foot the bill to bring Townsend to New York. After all, the USTA can’t block the top-ranked junior from entering an ITF event. But it doesn’t just stop at funding. According to Perrotta, the USTA actually requested that Townsend skip the U.S. Open, denying both her petitions for wild cards into either the U.S. Open main draw or the qualifying tournament.

The story has elicited a flurry of responses from former and current players, the most vocal being three-time Slam champion and former No. 1 Davenport:

The USTA’s position is a quizzical one. We’re not talking about a young player who is floundering or underachieving. To withhold support, whether in the form of financial help or even wild cards into U.S. Open qualifying (which she received in 2011), seems backward and nonsensical.

Young players need confidence and confidence comes from playing tournaments and winning matches. Instead of helping a promising young talent gain that confidence and experience gleaned from competing, the USTA has taken a paternalistic tack, deeming itself the arbiter and architect behind Townsend’s past, present and future success. It’s the arrogance of institution built on the belief that there is a tried-and-true formula to build a champion.

The USTA is not alone. Federations across the globe hold firm to the idea in the face of mountains of evidence proving them wrong. None of the top players in the world were a product of a federation farm system. From Novak Djokovic to Serena Williams, each developed at his or her own pace and it wasn’t until they were confronted with the realities of the tour, suffering tough losses to players who were stronger, faster and fitter, that they revamped their training regimen. Because if something is working, you stick with it; if it isn’t, you adapt to survive.

This is where the USTA logic fails. To the extent there is any flaw in a young player’s game, it’s something that needs to be exposed by losses, and losses only come if they’re allowed to compete. Undermining that ability to compete by revoking support eliminates the chance of revealing one’s flaws. According to the rankings, Townsend is the best in her age group. Whatever she and the USTA have done to get her to this point validates that. To take it away now, at a crucial time in her development, is shortsighted.

But let’s get to the real issue here, the elephant in the room. Taylor Townsend, a charming young girl who still wears her braces proudly and plays with ribbons in her hair, is still just that: a young girl. She is not the future of American tennis, she is not a policy and she is not an example. She’s just a kid playing a sport she loves and she’s pretty darn good at it. Her body is still developing, her self-esteem still ebbing and flowing, and the last thing she needs, not as a tennis prodigy but as an adolescent, is her own tennis federation telling her she’s physically deficient.

We live in a world — we’ve always lived in a world — where body image, particularly among young girls, is a lightning rod for mockery or bullying. We should be better than that. And as the organization charged with growing tennis, encouraging kids to play and making this sport as welcoming as possible, the USTA should strive to be better than that.

UPDATE: The USTA has decided to pay Townsend’s tennis expenses.

  • Published On Sep 07, 2012
  • 23 comments
    DrGsportspsych
    DrGsportspsych

    The USTA's initial refusal to pay for 16 year old Taylor Townsend's travel expenses to tournaments until she "gets more fit" (i.e. loses weight!!), Taylor being the topped ranked American junior player and the #1 tennis player in the world, clearly illustrates why the US has not been producing great female tennis players! Rather than focusing on the things that REALLY MATTER in helping build championship caliber tennis players, the USTA instead decides to concern itself with a shallow, paternalistic stance, a player's weight!! The one thing male coaches in ANY sport should NEVER be commenting on is a female adolescent's weight and body image. To me, this is NONE OF THEIR BUSINESS!!! There are already far too many developmentally vulnerable female adolescent athletes who have had to regularly endure the nasty, insensitive and ignorant comments about their weight from male coaches!  If Taylor's fitness level is truly a liability, then SHE will figure that out by herself and work on it BY HERSELF! She doesn't need a group of men telling her she needs to lose weight and get more fit! And why on earth would the USTA think there was something wrong with being ranked #1 in the world that had to be fixed anyway?!  

    theresa.seem
    theresa.seem

    What hypocrisy! This same USTA lets Serena Williams post a weight of 150 lbs and Maria Sharapova of 130 lbs. Maria Sharapova is 6'2" for God's sake, and she's 130 lbs like I'm Gisele Bundchen. What a load!

    KarolGustafson
    KarolGustafson

    Play TennisDuel for free , ITS an amazing tennis game www.tennisduel.com/r7

    clemente21
    clemente21

    Very goofy.  Okay, she probably needs to stop eating McDeath burgers and cutting out some ice cream and cake but she'll get there in due course.  If you withhold funding then she plays less which means she'll likely regress in the sense of what the USTA is hoping....

    theory_of_ice
    theory_of_ice

    @hockeysymposium I'll read it when I'm at my computer and get back to you.

    mkinsa
    mkinsa

    Patrick needs to have some balls and fess up.  Perhaps he should also consider getting more focused on his job as a development manager and stop doing this celebrity tv stuff. Last time I checked RESULTS (getting-it-done) in tennis was what mattered.  Being #1 jr in the world is not a handout.  It's mind-boggling that any adult would withhold a top kid from a junior slam in her home country. I suppose USTA is not happy TT is the finals of doubles.

    foxbasegamma
    foxbasegamma

    Out on Court 17 today, Taylor was 6-4'ed twice and lost, which, as it stands, might be a common scenario at the next levels whenever she plays anyone relatively strong from both sides, like the Estonian girl is. When the ball is redirected with a wheeling smash or a BHDTL, Taylor just doesn't have the court coverage to consistently catch up. As Courtney (and Coco Vandeweghe) so expertly note, she is perfectly capable of sussing out her weaknesses the hard way so she can balance them out with existing and found strengths. This is how the greats build up their games... and she absolutely, certainly doesn't need Patrick McEnroe to mindfreak her with negative behavior modification techniques in advance. What's likely going to pull her through in the end, and what makes her a true candidate to be a Next One, is her approach to tennis and attitude -- both are beyond awesome. She earnestly and non-sarcastically applauded her opponent after a few of those shots she couldn't get to today.

     

    As for the USTA, blunt hammer techniques like this are why it's such a big part of what's in the way of the Future Of American Tennis, in so many ways. (But it's hard to protest when they offer such a nice hat for a $30 initial membership.)

    bobturwilliger376
    bobturwilliger376

    I don't think the USTA has any business telling this girl to slim down. However I totally disagree with the premise that advice training and motivation should only come from losses and the USTA should just give these kids their space and foot the bill in the meantime, just look at Donald Young. If the USTA has questions about this girls work ethic or if her training is rigorous enough to prepare her to be a professional I think they're totally within their rights to demand or be persuaded that she's doing the hard yards and doing x hours of practice or whatever. But if they're basing their decision just on their eyeballs and saying this girl isn't skinny enough than yeah, I think Lindsay Davenport's question ought to be answered, because it reeks of chauvinism.

    nammie_d
    nammie_d

    This is so weird, it's not like she's world no 100, she's the world's top player! And if being "unfit" allowed her to win so many titles, so be it!

     

    And the fact that it is so public is embarrassing. No tact at all. They could have handled this much better. 

    ICHUSE2
    ICHUSE2

    Lindsey Davenport and Monica Seles where big Girls for a good part of their careers!!!!!  Will they keep someone out for being to small!!!!! Tat can be just as unhealthy....this is crazy!!!!

    tampathia
    tampathia

    First off, kudos to Lindsay D. for calling out the USTA for their shortsightedness. As others have stated it seems ridiculous to punish a player by keeping her from playing when more physical activity would seem to be the very thing that may help her attain greater fitness..and the argument that they are trying to keep her healthy is just too many shades of foolishness. Has her MD said she is not fit to play? Moreover, how has she come to be #1 in the world if she is so unfit? How "fit" are the players she's taking down? I wish the best for the future of American tennis but I'm begining to suspect that the USTA has a very specific agenda and if players don't conform they're out. First, Donald Young, now Taylor Towsend.

    High-techTennis
    High-techTennis

    This hurts my heart on soooo many levels. SURELY there was a better way to have handled such a sensitive topic...Can only imagine how TT must feel about herself right now - how horrible to have your weight a topic for public discussion - such a heartless way to treat a sweet young girl. Gonna reach out to show support for my friend TT right now...

    GeorgeElliottEllis
    GeorgeElliottEllis

    The USTA has lost its ever loving mind. And, no. This isn't about race. It's about body fascism. This girl is the number one female junior tennis player in the world. But the USTA has said that it is withholding financial support from her until she loses weight. It is inconceivable that any other country would withhold financial support from such a promising player. I am speechless over their shortsightedness; I am speechless with repect to their body fascism; I am speechless with their wholesale, moronic, and indefensible lack of support for this young player. Lindsay Davenport is right to be thankful she had a supportive coach and system when she was coming up; otherwise, she would've apparently been banned from the tour as well, for being too fat

    alexmath2
    alexmath2

    There actions may be over the top, but it is also apparent that she is not fit.  Just because there are men and women who have body issues, doesn't mean we should ignore the reality that this athlete is out of shape.  People are loathe to criticize her out of political correctness, but on tennis message boards Nalbandian and Baghdatis are routinely criticized for underachieving due to their fitness and weight.

    PurityPrydain
    PurityPrydain

    How ridiculous the USTA is. It would seem that encouraging Taylor to continue playing tennis would also help to improve her fitness.

    sluggahjells
    sluggahjells

    Also, Townsend not the future of American tennis??

     

    Ehhh, okay this is some poor stuff in an otherwise commendable effort. 

    sluggahjells
    sluggahjells

    The USTA though is the only federation in the world that does DENY their top junior a wild card into their home Grand Slam, let alone being the #1 junior in the world. 

     

    There is a difference, a major one there. Only the USTA would do that, and they sadly have. 

    KathleenSabo
    KathleenSabo

    This story pretty much makes me want to rescind my USTA membership!  I realize that I am far removed from the echelon Taylor exists in, but do I want an organization to which I belong to represent itself in this manner?  No!  I will be corresponding with those in charge - pitiful!  I'm pulling for you, Taylor!!

    sluggahjells
    sluggahjells

     @foxbasegamma Don't overstate that now.

     

    Taylor was too tired from two matches yesterday, and just couldn't win the big points today against a talent, older by a few months girl in Kontavelt. Taylor does have surprisingly good movement and athleticism, and you watching one match of that really makes it ridiculous. 

     

    Townsend moves better than Sharapova at this age, and remember, she is 16 and quite athletic. 

    alexmath2
    alexmath2

    their not there, before the grammar police come calling.

    sluggahjells
    sluggahjells

     @alexmath2 But she's 16, NOT 18. 

     

    As Martina Navritalova said today, "She has baby fat."