Saturday, September 15, 2012

My Thoughts on Taylor Townsend and USTA Player Development


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.

15 comments:

tennisforlife said...

An excellent an balanced piece - McEnroe's position as head of PD has been compromised beyond repair and not just by this incident. He is a part time administrator earning a full time salary who has hire a part time head coach in Jose Higueras who lives full time in Palm Springs over 200 miles from his closest academy in Carson. Its beyond embarrassing. McEnroe should do the honorable thing and resign or the USTA should have the guts to cut him loose along with his $1mm salary.

Roger said...

The Usta is so out of line here it's ridiculous!! What a poor example they set. They are a greedy misrun organization. Pat McEnroe shouldn't get a red cent for what he does! The guy can't even hit a forehand properly! Townsend would kick his butt! The Usta should realize you don't have to be that fit to make it on the woman's tour. For example, Kvitova, Bartoli, Pazcek, Pavlunchenkova, Liezel Huber. Townsend will be top 100 by 2014.

HIGH-TECH TENNIS said...

Taylor ROCKS...USTA - not so much. The instant I heard about it, I knew it was wrong, wrong, wrong. It's an unbelievable situation that is just so very distressing and damaging to all who love junior tennis...and most especially to all who love TT...Hope Taylor and Shelia will continue to hold their heads high---ALL WILL BE WELL FOR THEM IN THE END...I hope they find another place that values and protects and cherishes this CHILD instead of betraying her by sending confusing, mixed messages that make her feel badly about herself. I can't wait to see how far she can go as Taylor continues to develop her God-given talents. We have known and loved this family since 2006. They don't deserve this---actually no one does. Huge shout-out from HIGH-TECH TENNIS and thanks for the article, Zoo Tennis. WELL DONE!

Its the 21st Century said...

the Biggest thing here is: MISCOMMUNICATION!! Especially the comments with Lindsay and Martina. They should know that there are ALWAYS two sides to a story - learn all the facts FIRST before going to the press with your comments.

Taylor was NOT cleared to play medically, therefore she was not FIT and cleared to play.

The FACT is: Taylor is out-of-shape!!! If Taylor wants to be part of the USTA, then they control what her schedule is.

The public makes this a race issue - like someone said before - no one argued when Melanie and other players were held back because they were out of shape, but when a black teenage girl is - then there is an out-cry. I thought America would be past that in the 21st Century. That is EMBARRASSING and uneducated on America's part!

I mostly agree with the USTA on this one - - they are just ALWAYS awful at communicationing their message and the story before it happens.

tennis fan said...

Is there anyone on staff at the USTA who is a pediatrician, or has an advanced degree in psychology and child development? Apparently not, because if you ask any medical professional whether telling an impressionable teen age athletic girl that they are not "fit" which is USTA's code for " we think you are overweight" - is flirting with danger. Taylor has already proven herself. She is only going to get better and better with the right people guiding her mentally and physically. Most importantly though, Taylor is above all else a human being with feelings. She is not a tennis robot. She is built they way she is and no amount of punitive actions can change that! I guarantee you that she has done everything the USTA has asked her to do in terms of fitness and nutrition. What exactly do they want next - her to starve to meet their "personal opinion" fitness expectations? Are other kids at the USTA PD of a different genetically slimmer build being put through the same hell as Taylor? Being told not to compete even though they are proven champions? I doubt it...

It seems to me that the USTA was punishing Taylor for losing to Vicki Duval in the early rounds of Vancouver. I can hear it now from Ola, "Your coaches said that you lost because of fitness.."

I get that the USTA foots the bill..does that excuse them for treating these teenagers as commodities and not the precious talented human athletes that they are?

Lets Move on..... said...

The person who no one really has talked about is Taylor's coach, Kathy Rinaldi. Someone that has been with her over the past 3 years - who truly got her game to #1 in the World, who has mentored her and been with her through the ups-n-downs. Can we hear from her?

It seems everyone is not concerned with taylor's safety - only that she was not allowed to play and that she is black so that makes it 10 times worse and newsworthy.

apparently Ola only does what Jose tells him to do.

I know the usta uses the Clevland Clinic for thier medical needs so if taylor was not cleared by them then the usta probably had a very good reason.

Bottom Line - a personal coach would get praise for taking a hard stance on thier player and safety. I just wish the USTA had a good PR person to explain the entire siuation before this story which is completely over-blown gets out of hand.

It's time for the next story - lets move on....(didn't Wayne Bryan write another letter)?

seriously said...

It seems to me that the USTA was punishing Taylor for losing to Vicki Duval in the early rounds of Vancouver....

INCREDIBLE---that is one of the most absurd statements I have heard on here.

Concerned said...

Well balanced.

So frustrating. Seldom does any organization seem to alienate and infuriate so many members at every level.: from the privileged benefitting to those just biding by the rules.
We pay for this!
I always lioved p. Mac. I was slow to realize that this guy is out of touch and ultimately hurting tennis for the masses.

I have been to every national junior event for the last 3 years and have seen no visible representTion from the USTA beyond coaching their own. Even then
supervision questionable..never seen kids behave so.Badly on the court, but that is another story. missed opportunity to connect with their base.

The decisions made by the USTA are made by handful of people..the emperor wears no clothes. We have felt it at the bottom(ltop 20).disappointing to know that even
at the top the treatment is appalling.

I just don't what else to say. Nobody is listening. If I could do it again I would probably pick a different sport for my kids.....so sad

Midwest said...

Just got applied for itf numbers for my kids. 2 ranked in top 50 USTA. Disgusted. Just can't put my money on this system.

What has the USTA done for us lately? Nada

typical said...

Midwest

Do not be a typical parent ALWAYS expecting someone to do something for you or "what have they done for us lately." Nice additude. (not)

The USTA has set up a tournament structure - it is your choice to play them or not. In Midwest, there are always tournament to play.

Stop whining

questioner said...

Let's add a few more questions.

What did Taylor do the two months she was home early in the year? Could that be part of the "long story"? Has anybody asked that question?

Could Taylor hold her own with the other girls in Boca when she got back? Doesn't it sound like she could not?

Why is Cathy Rinaldi quiet? Did she oversell Taylor to her bosses?

What are Perotta's qualifications as a sports writer? Isn't he a novelist?

Why did the WSJ use the "benching
" headline"? Actually the answer is - to sell papers. Isn't it called yellow journalism?

Did Wertheim research any facts for his article? Did he just repeat what people said? Isn't that the easy way out?

Now some facts - Taylor is 16 only in years. Otherwise she is a fine athlete regardless of people's perception of her looks. Let's compare her to the girls in gymnastics at the Olympics. She is not a shrinking violet in fight and attitude. The people around her are just doing her a diservice by trying to manipulate communications and information.

Whether you hate PMac, the USTA and the whole system - boys and girls, it is about fitness. Period. Time will tell.

Midwest said...

Typical..there is no whining. Only being proactive.
I can assure yo I am not a typical parent. The vast majority of junior parents do whine, and they have alot to whine about.however, by the time they figure it out either their kids have aged out or they ar too scared to act for fear of retribution.

I have 2 sons. Scholarship money will be a bonus. The experience theses kids ar having....despite USTA limiting their opportunities and other USTA nonsense....is intangible.

We will choose to put our money into itf events.we ar going for the experience.

No whining .just telling you what we ar doing snd why

Alex said...

Taylor Townsend's playing career has been largely funded by the USTA. She should consider herself very lucky. Let's not act like she isn't getting anything from the USTA. She has obligations to them.

She is out-of-shape. Fat even. Yes, some can be attributed to being "Big-boned" but COME ON. I understand trying to sympathize with the kid because she's a teenage girl, but she is certainly out-of-shape and you have to set boundaries.

The comparisons to Serena Williams aren't really appropriate because Serena was out of shape and, despite all of her successes, she suffered quite a few losses in her career because of her fitness. She only recently completely dedicated herself 100% to fitness and look at the results. Serena didn't max out her winning potential. The USTA is just trying to max out Taylor's.

The USTA is also seemingly trying to prevent another Donald Young situation in which a promising American tennis player decided they didn't need to work that hard on fitness because they had all of the shots.

Also, let's not act like she's a little girl. She's 16. She will be on the pro tour soon and reality will hit her in the face when she realizes she can't keep up. Junior success doesn't necessarily translate to pro success. There are too many examples to list.

Midwest, you are a whiny parent. Sorry. You have no idea how good you have it.

Scooby Doo said...

We shouldn't act like Taylor is the one complaining.

From all the interviews I've seen, Taylor has acknowledged that she owes the USTA a lot. She has said that she considers herself very lucky. She said she's been doing everything the USTA has told her to do and has been cooperating. And most importantly, she has acknowledged that she isn't exactly at the ideal body weight/shape and has mentioned putting fitness as one of her main priorities.

In such a frustrating situation, I really haven't heard much complaint from Taylor Towsend herself. She was even very reluctant to shed light to this story, at the beginning. I think she knows exactly what she needs to work on and she know that fitness is one of those things.

BR said...

Patrick McEnroe is too far removed from the ustapd program. During the year and half we participated in the program in boca I saw him twice and it was come and go. Same situation with Jose higueras. You cannot impact a program when you are not in trenches. The rest of the coaches , although well intentioned do not have developmental experience and those that do have antiquated methods.