Taylor Townsend, on being body-shamed by US tennis bosses and mistaken for Serena Williams

Simon Briggs
The Telegraph
Taylor Townsend in action at the US Open - GETTY IMAGES
Taylor Townsend in action at the US Open - GETTY IMAGES
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Women's Sport Social Embed

Taylor Townsend’s matter-of-fact delivery makes her contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement all the more powerful.

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Earlier this month Townsend offered her thoughts on the subject of systemic racism. She spoke of how, on tour, she is routinely subjected to additional security measures because of her skin colour, revealing that she is often mistaken for fellow African-American Coco Gauff, or for one of the Williams sisters, because people think “all of us look the same, all of us are built the same”.

“You walk through and nobody stops you,” she told the Tennis United project, jointly run by the men’s and women’s tours. “And I’m walking through and somebody has to check my bag, check my credential, check my coach’s bag, check my coach’s credential. It’s extra security, extra precautions that need to be taken to make sure that I belong.

“This is our reality. It happens all the time – week in, week out, every tournament that I play in the States, overseas, it doesn’t matter. It’s not going to change. Hopefully, this [the Black Lives Matter protests] just creates a safe space and an awareness for people to want to talk about it.”

In a post-match interview at January’s Australian Open, following a hard-fought second-round loss to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Melbourne, Telegraph Women’s Sport sat down with the 24 year-old to hear about some of the challenges she has been forced to endure in her short career.

Like all too many African-American sportswomen, Townsend has been judged on her body shape. In 2012 she won the junior Australian Open and finished the season as the best 16 year-old in the world in the junior rankings. It should have been the start of a dizzying upward trajectory for the sport’s brightest young star, but instead the United States Tennis Association told her to sit out the US Open junior tournament – denying her wild cards into the main event because of her shape. “Our concern is her long-term health... and her long-term development as a player,” said Patrick McEnroe, then director of player development.

Taylor Townsend serves at the US Open - GETTY IMAGES
Taylor Townsend serves at the US Open - GETTY IMAGES

Publicly fat-shaming a young African-American girl was a low point for the federation. “How would you feel if you were the best in the world,” Townsend’s mother Sheila said at the time, “and they tell you you can’t do what you wanted to do?”

Serena Williams – who has endured racist and sexist commentary about her body shape – tweeted: “Women athletes come in all different sizes and shapes and colours and everything”. Meanwhile, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova both spoke of their outrage, describing how they also did not fit into this narrow body ideal when they were teenagers. “I would have been cut from the USTA programme,” added a “livid” Navratilova.

The USTA was forced to back down, with McEnroe blaming miscommunication. Unsurprisingly the incident knocked Townsend off her stride. “When personal issues are publicised... that’s always attached to you,” she said, during a run to the fourth round of the US Open’s main draw last year. “It’s been a long road, a lot of haters.”

Townsend insists that she bears “no ill-will or animosity” towards the USTA. “They have transformed in terms of being more inclusive. It would be dumb to say, ‘No, I don’t want your help because of something that happened eight years ago’.”

It is not the only gruelling episode she has been through. As a young player Townsend survived stresses that would have crushed a less resilient spirit. Aged 18, she discovered that her mother Sheila was not handling her tennis income as she would have hoped.

“I was a minor at the time so you would never think that your mum would be doing something that maybe wasn’t ethical or correct. But as I got older and I started to want to be more involved in my business, then I found out certain things.

“So I called her and I told her, ‘I forgive you for the things that happened’. For my mental [health], I let it go and I moved on. Now, we don’t speak. I don’t like the way that she conducts herself. But my dad’s great: he respects my boundaries.”

With so many off-court issues to process, Townsend’s results fluctuated wildly. In the late summer of 2014, she faced Serena Williams on the biggest stage in tennis: the 24,000-seater Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. Two years later, she had slumped so badly that she found herself in Pelham, Alabama, with a 69 year-old named Gail Falkenberg standing across the net.

But by last September, she had rediscovered her poise and self-belief. The evidence came at the US Open, where she toppled Simona Halep – the Wimbledon champion – on the way to the last 16. The match was a magnificent spectacle, especially as Townsend stuck to the sort of high-risk serve-volley tactics that have rarely been seen on the women’s tour since Navratilova’s heyday. Afterwards, a bewildered Halep shook her head and admitted that she had never seen so many net-rushes in her life.

Townsend smiled at the mention of that satisfying week in New York. “I gained a lot of followers and a lot of people who admired,” she said. “It was just refreshing. I was playing the game that I knew I could play for so long, but I had got away from that. So it’s nice that people recognise that and honestly enjoy it, because it is different.

“You have to enjoy the successes and the downs as well,” Townsend concluded. “I try to embrace the things that make me unique and special. I am OK with standing on the island by myself.” 

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