Taylor Townsend, a 16-year-old tennis prodigy from Chicago, is the numero uno junior girls' tennis player in the world, the reigning Australian Open singles champion and the junior Wimbledon doubles champion, and on Thursday she won two matches at the U.S. Open's junior tournament. She's awesome, is what we're getting at here, but Townsend, who is part of the USTA's player development program, had to find her own way to pay for a trip to New York because her coaches had declined to finance any tournament appearances until she lost weight.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Townsend's mother was a little, um, bemused that the USTA would refuse to pay travel expenses for the number one player in the world , especially considering that Taylor Townsend has performed at a consistently high level. Unfortunately, the USTA stodginess is part of the organization's push to turn its young players into leaner (and ostensibly, though not always actually, fitter) tennis players. According to Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of the USTA's player development program, the organization's biggest concerns are Townsend's "long-term health, number one, and her long-term development as a player."
The USTA founded its first full-time tennis academy in 2008 in Boca Raton, Fla., the better to reverse the steep decline in American tennis play. Townsend is among 25 hand-picked juniors at the Florida academy (another 41 now train in California). Coaches and trainers at the USTA program have made it clear that they believe a player's overall fitness is key to long-term success, though some ultra successful tennis pros, ahem, Serena Williams, disagree, insisting that a player doesn't necessarily need to look like a comic book superhero to be in great shape, nor does a super-fit player always beat a super-smart player. (The Journal points out that former U.S. star Lindsay Davenport achieved top banana tennis status at 6-foot-2, 175 lbs.)
Earlier this summer, when Townsend lost in the first round of qualifying for a professional event in Vancouver, her coaches asked her to withdraw from the USTA Girls' National Championships in San Diego, return to the Boca academy and embark on a more strenuous fitness program. Though Townsend explains that it wasn't her call to drop out, she did what was asked of her. She's also been pretty even-tempered about the whole experience, insisting that the USTA has done a lot for her and that, really, she's grateful for their concern.
Still, a person's weight doesn't necessarily indicate a sufficient or insufficient level of fitness, and withdrawing travel money for the top junior girls' player to compete at the top U.S. tennis event seems to put undue focus on what Townsend looks like rather than what she can do on a tennis court.