INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – What does turning professional mean for 16-year-old Taylor Townsend? Brussels sprouts.
“I had to give up a lot of stuff. And I had to start eating a lot of stuff I didn’t like,” Townsend said after beating 57th-ranked Lucie Hradecka 3-6, 7-6 (1), 6-3 in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open on Thursday. “But I’m starting to like it,” she said, though her tone was less than convincing. “I just have to cook them a certain way.”
It was Townsend’s first WTA main-draw win of her professional career. She punctuated match point with youthful exuberance, a twirling, hopping, fist-in-the-air number that underscored her buoyant personality. Townsend, who finished the 2012 season as the top-ranked junior and turned pro in December, was playing just her fourth pro match in her Indian Wells debut. She credits the hard work she put in during the preseason for the win.
“This year is the first year I’ve really buckled down and had a very, very good preseason workout,” she said. “I got a new trainer [Danny McNair]. We train out in Boynton Beach. We just really hit it hard for six weeks. I went back to the basics and worked on some stuff in practice. This year is the first year I’ve done that consistently and done it so much. I see the work coming to fruition now. I did have that problem before.”
Going from the amateur or junior ranks to the pros isn’t just about signing papers, cashing checks or celebrating birthdays. It’s demanded a new mindset and work ethic that Townsend has embraced. Last fall she was embroiled in a controversy surrounding her fitness after the USTA refused to pay for her travel expenses until she lost weight. Townsend, who says she’s put the incident behind her, approached her first preseason as a professional with a renewed sense of purpose, knowing that in order to compete with her idols she had to get fitter.
“I don’t think I was working the wrong way,” she said. “I just don’t think that I was doing it in the mindset, first of all, as a professional athlete. And second of all, with the same intensity. The things that I was doing in the preseason were so much different than I had ever done in my life.
“The years before I was dreading it. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I have to do six weeks, and I’m gonna run, and all this stuff, and I don’t want to do this.’ But now being a professional, I was thinking, ‘OK, you need to do this, and get in the best shape that you can possibly get in so that you can perform on big stages like these, but also compete with these girls.’”
Her new status as a pro athlete is still sinking in for Townsend, who says it can be intimidating sharing a locker room with the likes of Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and her next opponent, 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic.
“I just think it’s really cool that you kind of share the same environment and if you want you have the opportunity to talk to them, and ask questions depending on how bold you are. I’m not that bold yet,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a lot that you can learn from being in the same atmosphere as them, so it’s really cool.”
This year has been kind so far to the WTA’s American teens, with Sloane Stephens, 19, and Madison Keys, 18, making waves at the Australian Open in January and now Townsend, the youngest player in the draw, making good on her wild card and beating a veteran ranked more than 400 spots ahead of her. Townsend is good friends with both Stephens and Keys and she drew inspiration from their success Down Under. She says her experience of hitting with Keys helped prepare her for the power and pace on tour, while Stephens’ big win over Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals showed her age is nothing but a number.
“I stayed up and watched her match against Serena and it was so empowering for me,” Stephens said. “And I’m saying if she can do it, I can do it, too.”
Not that Townsend is necessarily ready for that Serena showdown quite yet.
“I would probably be very nervous. Hopefully she doesn’t give me that death stare because I wouldn’t know what I would do,” she joked.
Townsend will play Ivanovic on Saturday.