A teenage girl whose natural and healthy body type doesn’t fit into a size zero, or onto the cover of a magazine, is already under enough pressure. You cannot tell her that her problem is “fitness” without her hearing the word “fatness.”
You can’t add punishment for it, hold back money for her future, threaten her family’s finances. Bluntly: You can’t be sure if that action will push her to train harder or force her to put a finger down her throat.
And if you’re the United States Tennis Association, having had a disastrous relationship with black tennis prodigy Donald Young, you cannot play this loosely or obliviously with the psyche of 16-year-old Taylor Townsend, an African-American girl who is the No. 1 ranked junior in the world.
On Monday, Serena Williams called it a tragedy.
While Williams was working her way toward a 15th major championship without the stereotypical tennis body type, the USTA attempted to withhold travel expenses from Townsend for the junior event and didn’t even want her there at all. Her USTA coaches, as uncovered by The Wall Street Journal, told her they wouldn’t pay her expenses for any tournaments this summer until she made progress in her conditioning.
“For a female in particular, in the U.S. in particular, to have — and African-American — to have to deal with that is unnecessary,” Williams told reporters at JP Morgan headquarters in New York, according to Daniel Kaplan of Sports Business Journal. “Women athletes come in all different sizes and shapes and colors and everything. You see that more than anywhere on the tennis tour.”
The USTA, under pressure from media reports and outraged former superstar players, including Martina Navratilova and Lindsay Davenport, eventually backtracked and decided to pay her expenses for the U.S. Open. Patrick McEnroe, head of USTA player development, said it had all been a misunderstanding.
Yes, the USTA misunderstood the pain it was causing a young girl.
A USTA official said it wasn’t about Townsend’s weight, but only about her conditioning. And McEnroe told the Journal: “Our concern is her long-term health, number one, and her long-term development as a player.”
No. They want her to lose weight. And the USTA is not worried about her health, either. Townsend played two matches covering 3 1/2 hours in the junior U.S. Open on Thursday without trouble or fatigue. She also went on to win the girls doubles title with Gabrielle Andrews.
She is healthy. What the USTA is after is that extra half-step that can help Townsend become a champion on the pro tour. That’s fine. It’s what the USTA is supposed to do, build a champion. But let’s not make up noble reasoning here.
The truth is, Townsend does need to get in a little better shape, does need to firm up some to compete against the top pros. But even if the USTA hasn’t been able to get that message to sink in, the organization botched this thing as badly as imaginable.
This isn’t like an NFL player whom you fine for every pound he’s overweight until the numbers are right. This is not a professional man, but a 16-year-old girl. And if the message was to try to desperately hold up a mirror for her to see the problem, then I can guarantee you she didn’t need that mirror.
She sees it every day. She plays in the public, in short skirts, against the stereotype. Every. Day.
By pressuring her out of the U.S. junior nationals, as the USTA did earlier this year, do you think that told her something she didn’t know?
Or did it just make the issue public, more embarrassing?
Shelia Townsend, Taylor’s mother, told The New York Times that fitness matters, but that different players have different body types:
“Serena doesn’t look like Sharapova.”
And that’s where we get back into race issues. Williams and Maria Sharapova have been rivals over the years less because of any on-court matchups than because of color and body type.
Sharapova is the stereotype: white, tall, blonde, supermodel-like. Williams is bigger, more muscular. Yet while Williams has won many more titles, Sharapova has more endorsement money and seems to avoid controversies.
We’ve created a false ideal for girls. Williams has fought fitness issues throughout her career. But mostly, she is pushing a new model: strong, fit, smart, successful, athletic.
Three years ago, she appeared in ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue nearly nude. And while it might have pushed a line between selling sex and sport, it was a major victory for Williams. She was already an example that you don’t have to be 6 feet tall and weigh 110 pounds. But her photo showed that she was proud of it.
Two years earlier, she had said, “Just in the locker room, staring at my body, I’m like, ‘Am I not fit, really not fit? Or is it just that I have all these extra assets?’
“I don’t care if I didn’t eat for two years, I still wouldn’t be a size 2. We’re living in a (Mary-)Kate Olsen world. I’m just not that way. I’m . . . bootylicious, so to say.”
Think about that: Even Williams was looking in the mirror, worrying about what was wrong.
Williams’ criticism of the USTA on Monday will only add to questions about the governing body’s relationship with young black players. Donald Young once was the world’s top junior player, but he hasn’t developed as a pro and had an ugly and contentious relationship with the USTA.
In fairness to the USTA, most of the top junior American girls are black. Some are working with the organization, including Sloane Stephens. And while Townsend’s coaches didn’t want her at tournaments, the USTA still was paying for her coaching and training at one of its national centers.
But while the USTA treats “fitness” as just another part of a tennis game, like working on a backhand or a serve, a 16-year-old girl is going to see it as part of self-worth.
A public statement about it? A personal insult. I’m not sure where the USTA’s heart was, but I know its brain was in the wrong place.