It’s rare for a junior to be a story at the US Open, but this year Taylor Townsend became one after she and her mother Shelia spoke to Tom Perotta at the Wall Street Journal about her “benching” by the USTA. The story quickly picked up steam, with USA Today, most New York papers, Sports Illustrated and Good Morning America also investigating the USTA’s handling of the world’s top-ranked junior.
After her first round win Sunday at the US Open junior championships, I asked Townsend about her curious absence from all competition since the beginning of August and she simply answered she was “a little sick” and it was a “long story.” She wouldn’t elaborate in a follow-up question on the topic from another reporter in the small press conference, and it wasn’t until I saw the Wall Street Journal story Thursday that I fully understood the situation.
In a post-match press conference the following day, Townsend said she hadn’t read the WSJ story, but that “everything in there is the truth,” and described herself as “devastated,” when she was told to withdraw from the USTA 18s Nationals and concentrate on her fitness for an eight-week span, which also included the US Open qualifying and the US Open Junior Championships.
The topic of Townsend’s fitness level was hardly a new one. Back in May, Townsend participated in a conference call with Patrick McEnroe, General Manager of USTA Player Development, and this was one of the questions asked by a reporter:
Q. Taylor, possibly a sensitive issue. You never like to ask a woman about weight issues. Early on I noticed you were pretty overweight. I saw you recently and I marveled at how svelte you looked. Can you talk about your battle with that over the years and what you've done to get in better condition.
TAYLOR TOWNSEND: Well, I've always been pretty comfortable with my body. I know and I've been told, it's obvious for me, that I don't have a typical body type of everyone else. Really I just have to work with what I have pretty much. I use it. To me it's been working pretty well (laughter).
Being down at USTA I've learned the importance of my fitness level. I learned that just skill alone, talent, being able to use your hands isn't always enough. If I can't get to the ball, if I can't stay in the point long enough, I won't be able to give myself an opportunity to be able to use what I have.
Fitness is really important. I've learned that over the course of these years being here. I definitely made a transition, a positive transition, in the way that my body has come along. I think as well as losing weight, dropping weight, but growing as well.
I was young probably when you saw me. So just being able to grow into my body, get a little taller, all that stuff, it's helped a lot. Hopefully I can grow a few more inches. But I'm just pretty much using what I have.
PATRICK McENROE: You're using it pretty darn well, Taylor. Don't worry about it.
That exchange doesn’t sound as if the head of Player Development had too many concerns about Townsend’s fitness, but less than a month later an email went out to players who were full-time residents of the USTA National Training Centers and their parents, as well as all USTA Player Development coaches. Jose Higueras, Head of Coaching at USTA Player Development wrote (emphasis added):
"Dear Players and Parents:
Our mission in Player Development is to develop world-class American players through a clearly defined training structure and competitive pathway as well as through the implementation of a comprehensive coaching philosophy and structure. This means working with players to help them maximize their potential and reach the Top 10 of the ATP and WTA rankings. We have a great group of highly skilled and talented coaches and strength and conditioning staff to help players achieve this goal. It is undeniable that the level of fitness of our player(sic) at our three training centers (Boca, Carson and New York) is an essential component to their game and is often directly related to their success on the court. For that reason, our staff continues to work closely with our players on a daily basis to ensure sure we are enhancing their level of fitness.
However, each player has a responsibility himself or herself, to make sure they are doing all of the right things on their own to be in peak physical condition. With this in mind, we plan to implement a policy moving forward that if (in our opinion) we do not feel that a player has done their part towards achieving a high degree of fitness, we will not take them on whatever trip may have been planned.
Please do not hesitate to let us know if you have any questions and thank you for your support in helping all of us achieve our goal of helping to develop top-ranked, world-class American players."
After Townsend lost in the US Open junior quarterfinals to Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, she was asked about the Wall Street Journal article and how the weeks leading up to the junior tournament played out. Townsend said she met with USTA head of women’s tennis Ola Malmqvist after she lost 6-2, 6-1 to Vicky Duval in the first round of qualifying at the Vancouver Challenger, her first competitive match since winning the junior doubles title at Wimbledon with Eugenie Bouchard of Canada.
“He first told me that he didn’t feel as though I was in a good place, that I was kind of moving downward so they wanted me to go back and skip everything for eight weeks and just train and work on my fitness, primarily fitness. He said go back and get to a good place, and I went back and I was only hitting three times a week for 45 minutes. I was really confused because I was like, what’s happening, you know? Before that tournament I was doing two fitnesses and two tennis sessions a day, so why was it getting pushed back all of a sudden. I was shocked pretty much, but I can’t do anything about it now, I’m just glad to be here, honestly.”
Shutting her off from tennis for eight weeks meant Townsend had to withdraw from the USTA 18s Nationals, where she would have had an opportunity to win a main draw wild card into the US Open with a victory (or a qualifying wild card if she had reached the finals), and she was denied a wild card into the women’s qualifying. That also meant no funding for her trip to New York for the US Open Juniors, but the USTA could not keep her out of the US Open Junior Championships, since she had entered and been accepted by the ITF.
Room and board for any junior slam, called hospitality by the ITF, is provided to any junior who reaches the main draw in singles or doubles, so Townsend’s expenses would have been primarily airfare, which her mother paid. The USTA has a grant for airfare for those in the main draw of junior slams outside the US, but does not for New York.
Shortly after the WSJ article, Patrick McEnroe was quoted as saying the money issue was the result of a miscommunication, and that the Townsends would be reimbursed, but that seems to contradict the substance of Higueras’ email.
The USTA also said later in the week in a tennis.com article that Townsend was not cleared to play the US Open medically, due to a diagnosis of low iron, and once she received clearance to play, they were happy to have her there and pay her way. While the medical clearance part may be true, and I know the USTA can be strict about such things, Patrick McEnroe did not mention this in his comments to the Wall Street Journal.
I think the reason this story has had so much resonance is twofold. First, it involves the ITF’s top-ranked junior, who has an exceptionally stylish game, a vibrant personality and the confidence to display both. Second, it raised the issue of fitness vs. body type and whether demanding greater fitness from an obviously successful and full-figured 16-year-old girl is a) appropriate and b) necessary.
Two great champions who had similar issues in their teens, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova, emphatically answered no to those questions and explained how they learned they needed to get in better shape. Serena Williams, who has also been the subject of much discussion due to her body type and varying levels of fitness, said “if that happened that’s a obviously a tragedy, because everyone deserves to play.”
Townsend has played only nine tournaments this year, but has managed to remain number 1 in the ITF Junior World rankings. She played two matches in one day, as did others, at both the Easter Bowl (which she won) and the US Open Juniors, and there was no evidence in either case of any lack of fitness.
Townsend admits however, that she isn’t in peak physical condition, saying “I’m not going to sit here and say that I couldn’t have gotten in better shape or that I can’t get in better shape, or I’m not going to sit here and say that I’m fastest person, the most agile, because I’m not. There’s definitely room for improvement, but it’s personal opinion.”
It’s interesting to recall the parenthetical clause in Jose Higueras’s e-mail “in our opinion.” Townsend believes she’s fit enough to play and the USTA does not. The heart of the controversy centers on whose opinion takes priority when it comes to competing. I simply can’t accept as necessary the drastic measure of keeping her out of two of the most important tournaments of the year. If the USTA felt it had come to that, it would have been more honest to ask her to leave the program, a common practice among all academies, and a scenario that has played out many times at the USTA’s Boca Raton Training Center.
Without an advocate outside the organization (she is still an amateur and doesn’t have an agent who may have smoothed out the ‘miscommunications’), Townsend and her mother may have felt shedding light on this difference of opinion was valuable to others. Certainly they were both available to address questions and provide candid answers to all who asked throughout the week, at least after the Wall Street Journal story broke. Townsend could have succumbed to the distraction this created, but she seemed unaffected when on court and went on to win the doubles title, her third junior slam doubles title of the year.
Even the staunchest advocate of the USTA can’t think this was handled well by the organization. Player Development has always struggled to communicate with those outside the system, and simply finding out who is actually training full time at the USTA is well nigh impossible.
There are many reasons for this, and perhaps confidentiality is one of them, but the high turnover rate of players, coaches and staff over the past two years at Player Development certainly contributes to it.
It’s been two years since there has been a press conference or call specifically devoted to player development, and although I don’t believe Player Development was as involved in the new Junior Competition changes as others do, it is but another instance where actual dialogue between affected constituencies was sadly lacking.
Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim went on the record after the Open with his opinion that Patrick McEnroe’s position as head of Player Development is in direct conflict with his role as a commentator for ESPN, with ESPN’s failure to cover the Townsend story one of those conflicts.
When McEnroe stepped down as Davis Cup captain, I had hoped he would have more time to devote to junior tennis. I’ve seen no evidence of that. I covered both Wimbledon and the US Open Junior Championships this year and in the course of my reporting I did not encounter McEnroe at any junior matches, although it’s possible our paths just didn’t intersect.
I understand he is an administrator, but I don’t think he’s involved enough when one of the country’s top prospects says, “I don’t talk to Patrick. I don’t. I don’t see him often, he’s not there,” as Townsend said when asked about their relationship.
Would more day-to-day involvement by McEnroe have changed the way this incident played out? I don’t know. Townsend says she has a good relationship with her USTA coach Kathy Rinaldi and that fact didn’t change the narrative. I do know there are many complicated issues here that can’t be reduced to tabloid headlines.
What boundaries can the USTA set for its players, who are, after all, children with families, and what can it do if they don’t comply? Does that apply whether the player is ranked No. 1 in the world or has been unable to get out of the 100s? How do you convey and adhere to a philosophy without damaging individuality and creativity? How much do you demand and how much do you let players figure out for themselves? How are you accountable to your players and how are they accountable to you? How do you provide an environment where everyone feels they are playing by the same rules? How do you focus on cultivating Top 100 players through the instruction you provide and yet develop healthy, happy people, not just products that sell tickets to the second week of the US Open? What’s the best way to keep families involved and informed?
I could add another fifty questions and you probably can too, which is why even a post this long isn’t going to provide a definitive answer.
Townsend said she had no immediate plans to leave the USTA after this. But she also did not rule out the possibility.
“I just want to go and be at a place where I’m happy,” she said in her press conference after winning the doubles title. “I want to be in a place where I have a free mind and don’t have to worry about any drama or anything, go out and have fun on the court, work really hard and get everything I possibly can out of it, every single day. So whether that’s at USTA or it’s not at USTA, it doesn’t really matter to me because it’s me as a player, it’s not really USTA out there playing, it’s me playing. But as of right now, I’m at USTA and I’m happy.”
With her ranking and achievements, as well as her potential, there isn’t an academy anywhere who wouldn’t fund a full scholarship for her. She and her family are raising this issue from a position of strength, and it’s not often a player, particularly a junior player, has that kind of bargaining position with the USTA. Townsend isn’t the first junior to question the philosophy and methods of the USTA. She’s just the first willing to talk about it.