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:
I'm really disheartened by this Taylor Townsend news :( makes me sad. Also makes me wonder if any females were involved in decision making.—
Lindsay Davenport (@LDavenport76) September 07, 2012
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.