When Georgia-based up-and-coming tennis star Taylor Townsend tried to play in the 2012 U.S. Open Junior tournament, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) tried to get her to sit it out instead, citing health reasons.
Many observers felt the USTA was concerned that Townsend was overweight and was withholding financial support for that reason.
Townsend ignored the tennis bosses. Her mom paid their travel expenses and she went on to win the junior doubles title and move into the singles division quarterfinals.
She also won the girls singles and doubles titles at the 2012 Australian Open and became the first American since 1982 to hold the year-end No. 1 junior ranking.
Townsend put an exclamation point to the controversy on May 28 when the Chicago-born teen, ranked 205, beat 20th-seeded Alize Cornet of France 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 in the French Open in Paris to reach the third round.
She was so thrilled with her performance that she celebrated on court with a dance that’s popular in Georgia. “These are the moments, these are the things, that any young professional athlete is working for,” Townsend said.
Townsend, who says she’s working toward a high school degree, earned a USTA wild card based on her performance during a series of lower-level tournaments this spring.
In the first round, she defeated fellow American Vania King, ranked No. 65 in the world, before beating Cornet, the No. 1 Frenchwoman in the second round. With that win, she became the youngest American woman in the third round at the French Open since 2003. She lost 6-2, 6-2 in the third round to Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain on Friday.
“The people are so supportive and I really have had a great time playing in front of them,” Townsend said Friday. “I did realize that I do like big stages, I like big courts, I like playing in front of a lot of people, so that’s good.”
Her playing also earned her a fan in superstar Andy Murray.
After the implied criticism of the USTA over her weight, Townsend said she started working hard trying to get in the best shape she could and it turned out to be “a huge strength” for her.
She said focusing on her body helped her become a stronger player both physically and mentally.
“It helped me believe in myself more,” she said. “It also opened my eyes to say, ‘You know, you’re not going to look like everyone else.”
During the height of the controversy, Patrick McEnroe, general manager of the USTA’s player development program, said the concern was Townsend’s “long-term health” and her “long-term development as a player.”
“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 said.
For Cornet, though, there is no doubt about Townsend’s abilities. “She’s an unpredictable player,” Cornet said. “She can play some amazing shots. I think that … she was a bit scared to finish the match. She has huge potential. I will keep a close eye on her.”
This story is based on reports from the Associated Press and other media sources.