During this U.S. Open, we found out that The United States Tennis Association cut the funding to America's brightest junior tennis star not because she was bad, or that she was losing, but because they thought she was overweight. And now this mistake has caught the eye of one of America's current tennis stars: Serena Williams. "If that happened, that's obviously a tragedy, because everyone deserves to play. ... Women athletes come in all different sizes and shapes and colors and everything. I think you can see that more than anywhere on the tennis tour," Williams said in report by ESPN posted last night.
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Taylor Townsend, 16, is the world's top-ranked junior tennis player and the most exciting American tennis prospect since the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport, but as The Wall Street Journal's Tom Perrotta first reported on September 8, the USTA wasn't impressed by her physique.
... unbeknownst to everyone outside her inner circle, the USTA wasn't happy to see Townsend in New York. 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.
It's a good thing Townsend didn't listen to their advice. Townsend is blessed with an electric serve-and-volley game won the U.S. Open girls' doubles title this past weekend and rode her attacking style to be one of the last eight standing at the Open's girls' singles event.
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But, just in case you were wondering, there is no weight limit in tennis. If, say, a member of any one of TLC's exploitation side shows television shows were good enough to beat Andy Murray or wipe the floor with a Williams sister, officials would totally let them play. But when you're a junior, like Townsend is, your entry into professional events like the U.S. Open and funding to go to international tournaments is largely determined by governing bodies like the USTA.
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"Our concern is her long-term health, number one, and her long-term development as a player," Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of the USTA's player development program (and a tennis commentator) told Perrotta and the WSJ. "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." McEnroe's comments seem harmless enough, but he doesn't outright deny that the USTA told Townsend to slim down. And apparently, the directions given to Townsend weren't very clear either.
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"I didn't get any definite answer on why they didn't want me to play they just told me that they felt I should focus on my fitness," said Townsend in an interview Good Morning America over the weekend. And she explained the gravity of being the No.1 junior player in the world to USA Today, "Pretty much all the other federations, if they had a No. 1 junior in the world, they would kind of break their backs to bring them to whatever they needed to go to... I'm not going to sit here and say I'm the fastest person or the most agile, because I'm not."
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Now, anyone that's watched tennis coverage throughout the years can attest that the physical appearance of athletes often turns into a talking point (hey, matches get really long and there's only so much you can say about forehands...we guess). "His gut resembled the kind of swollen thing you'd see at the O'Hare food court," a Sports Illustrated writer once wrote about Argentinian player David Nalbandian. And writers and analysts been just as unkind to the female players like Serena, Lindsay Davenport, former number-one Dinara Safina, and top 10-player Marion Bartoli. They've even chastised one player for being too skinny.
But those are commentators. And yes, it's a completely depressing thought that that type of body-snarking and judgment is what awaits Townsend should she turn pro, it's a completely different thing to have an organization like the USTA which holds the fate of your tennis career judge someone based by the shape of their body. Mind you, that shape that Townsend was good enough to win the 2012 junior Australian Open this year, as well as three junior grand slam doubles titles.
"No one tournament is bigger than a player's career, especially when the player is 16. Taylor continues to be one of our best prospects, and our goal is her long-term development," McEnroe said in a statement picked up by ABC, sounding a bit more remorseful than he did when talking about her "health." And the USTA has since reversed their decision and said they will reimburse Townsend and her mother for their trip to the U.S. Open this year.
"I think it will pass, because I think we all have a common goal here, that I want to do well," said Townsend in response--sounding like a true professional. She adds in The New York Times:
I want to be in a place where I can have a free mind and don’t have to worry about any drama or anything," she said, chuckling, "and just go out and kind of have fun on the court, and work really hard and get everything I possibly can out of it every single day."
Townsend's mother told ABC News that Taylor stands at 5'6" and weighs you know what, who cares? And it doesn't take a tennis expert to see that Townsend she isn't built like Anna Kournikova ... Venus Williams... or Steffi Graf ... or Maria Sharapova. But if she's winning, we'd argue, she doesn't need to be.