US star rocks tennis with shocking accusation

American tennis star Taylor Townsend has delivered a scathing takedown against the US Tennis Association and the sport itself for its negative built-in attitudes on race, class and image.

In the wake of Naomi Osaka’s shock withdrawal from Roland-Garros over mental health concerns, Townsend wrote an emotional piece for The Player’s Tribune about her personal experience of falling into depression due to the internal and external pressures she felt navigating a tennis career “in a country that hates fat black women”.

In the powerful first-person account, Townsend – a person of colour from Chicago – explained how from the juniors to the pro ranks she has been subjected to fat-shaming and racism, while playing the sport she loves.

Townsend, who has recently been on a hiatus from tennis after the birth of her son, reflected candidly on the controversy involving the USTA when she was a junior.

“I was fat, and I was black, so they took away my dream,” she said of the USTA.

Townsend claimed that when she was 16 and the top-ranked junior in the world that she was denied playing the US Open in 2012 due to the USTA’s issues with her weight, not her performance.

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Townsend said off the back of winning the 2012 Australian Open juniors in singles and doubles and the Wimbledon juniors in doubles, she was stunned when she got a phone call from a USTA official telling her she needed to do an eight-week block of fitness training, which would mean she missed the US Open.

“I’ll be the first to admit that conditioning wasn’t an area of strength for me that summer. But I was still getting results where it mattered most,” she wrote.

“It was frustrating!! Like, here I was, flying back to Florida to start my fitness ‘hiatus’ – while all the other juniors I knew (girls I was ranked higher than) were on their way to New York to start getting ready for the Open.

“And it only got worse from there.”

A routine blood test during her fitness training program revealed she was anemic, and was “playing sick” all the while not knowing she had “been under serious cardiovascular stress”. But her hematologist said she would “feel like superwoman” with liquid iron injections, and well enough to play the US Open.

But according to Townsend, the USTA did not agree, and while they couldn’t stop her playing juniors as an automatic qualifier due to her high ranking, she said they told her she would not be given a wildcard for the major tournament draw, and was “not fit to play”.

Townsend believes this revealed the USTA’s true concerns about her.

“What do you think ‘fit to play’ really means?” Townsend queried.

“I was the No.1 ranked junior in the world – and that was with my anemia, y’all. Now the doctor is telling me that if I get my iron levels up, I’m going to feel 100 per cent. And yet….. they’re still trying to keep me out.

“What’s sad is, looking back, I really trusted those people. Like, at first – I really believed their ‘fit to play’ stuff was about looking out for me.

“Once I got the [anemia] diagnosis, I figured the original conversation about my fitness was over….. or at least clearly different now. Right? I mean, that diagnosis probably saved my life, let alone my tennis career. I’m so grateful for it. But like I said: It also proved this was a health problem. And to me, that meant it was no longer something the USTA and a bunch of fitness trainers should be speaking on. Now it was something that should be left up to doctors. And my doctor said I was good to go!

“So why is the USTA basically saying, ‘Nah. We’re sticking with our original decision???’ Why is my ranking saying I’m the best in the world….. and my doctor is saying I’m okay to play….. and meanwhile the USTA is saying I need to see a nutritionist….. and lose some weight?

“It made no sense. It was confusing as hell. And it hurt – it hurt really bad.”

Townsend said her experience highlighted how no matter what she had achieved in the sport at that time, she was and always would be an “outsider”.

“Sixteen years old, and getting to No.1 in juniors as a black girl from the South Side? I was so proud of that. I was so proud of who I was, and what I’d achieved. And I think I had it in my head, like, alright – I know I might be an outsider in this sport. I know I might not be like all these other tennis kids. But once I got to No. 1?? Once I climbed that mountain?? Now they’ll be proud to have me. Now I’ll be treated like a part of American tennis. Now I’ll be one of them,” she wrote.

“Doesn’t exactly work that way, though, does it.

“As a matter of fact….. it worked pretty much exactly the opposite.

“It worked the way things usually work in a country that hates fat black women.

“You don’t have to look around very hard. It’s everywhere.

“And it’s especially everywhere in the world of tennis. I mean, think about it: They didn’t just alienate me for not fitting the ‘mould’ of what a tennis player should look like – they punished me. They took away something I’d earned.

“I was fat, and I was black, so they took away my dream.

“Or at least they tried.”

Townsend defied the USTA by paying her own way to compete in the junior US Open event, and won the women’s doubles title and made the quarter-finals in the singles.

She said in the aftermath she made a conscious decision not to hold back with a “diplomatic” answer to journalists perplexed as to why she wasn’t in the main draw.

“I thought, ‘You know what? F–k it. I’m gonna be real.’ I decided I wasn’t gonna let myself be embarrassed anymore – I wasn’t gonna let myself be humiliated by this rich, white tennis world that I had spent my entire childhood scraping and crawling and bending over backwards to fit into,” Townsend wrote.

“I took a deep breath….. and aired everything out to the press. I gave them the real. Told them what actually happened.”

In response to her bombshell claims at the time, Townsend said the USTA “basically denied all of it” and suddenly she found herself unwittingly at the centre of a “national incident” that led to her losing some of her passion for the sport.

“It turns out that 16-year-old black girls can’t take public shots at the biggest organisation in American tennis and then simply go back to their business,” she wrote.

“I had clearly put some powerful people in a hot pile of fiery s–t, and brought them scrutiny they didn’t want. And that decision came with painful consequences. I mean, it’s not like anyone could stop me from playing….. but they could slowly squeeze out every drop of what I loved about playing.

“I left the USTA in 2013, then turned professional in 2014 – which should have been one of the happiest moments of my life…. but all I can really remember about that time now is sadness. All I can really remember is this feeling that tennis wasn’t tennis anymore.

“Now, for me, tennis was the feeling of getting betrayed by a bunch of people who I thought were on my team. Tennis was the feeling of being stuck with a life where answering questions about my weight in public had literally become part of my job. Tennis was the feeling of having this permanent cloud hanging over my career….. before my career had even gotten started.”

As a result of her turbulent start in professional tennis Townsend slid in the world rankings to outside of the top 300 and her self confidence also took a dive, ultimately leading to depression.

“I was messed up,” she said.

“I don’t want to beat around the bush about that. I don’t care who you are – you go through something like that, and you’re going to be messed up from it. I honestly still can’t really talk about the depression aspect of it all, because it’s just hard to articulate.

“It’s hard to describe something that’s taking place inside your head, you know?? But that’s how it was for me mostly. I was still ‘me,’ on the surface. I wasn’t missing practices. I wasn’t missing matches. I was acting pretty much the same. But I wasn’t the same.”

Before she fell pregnant, Townsend had been able to rise back into the top 100 world rankings, courtesy of linking up with her childhood coach who has been more accepting of her physique, and since working together she reached the Round of 16 at the 2019 US Open, and the 2020 semifinals in the women’s doubles.

Now 25, Townsend said during her time away from the game looking after her son Aydn and beginning her journey in motherhood, she has finally, properly been able to process what she went through in her youth.

“You never wanna blame anyone for what’s happened to you. For the places that you didn’t go. Or the heights that you didn’t reach. But at the same time….. how do you stop blaming yourself?” Townsend wrote.

“And I guess that’s what I’m still trying to figure out, in some ways. I know that tennis wasn’t taken away from me. But I also know that it was. I know that the things I’ve had to carry – they’re more than just a tennis career. And the way that I was treated, it’s less than I deserved.

“But it’s what I have to live with, and I’m going to live with it.

“When I went on pregnancy hiatus at the end of last year, I felt better about my game than I had in years. I also felt more at peace with my place in the world than I had in….. ever. I’m in a place now where I can finally pull back a little and start to see the big picture. Where I can see that everything I’ve been through it didn’t just give me hurt.

“It gave me strength. And now I don’t only have my strength – I have my reason. Aydn Aubrey Johnson.

“The full story of black women in tennis is a whole mess of stories.

“There’s the Williams sisters, of course, overcoming everything they overcame to become a pair of damn GOATs.

“But on the other side of the coin, there’s also hundreds (thousands?!) of stories you’ll probably never even hear about, of Black girls who just didn’t get a shot. Whether that’s because of money….. or racism….. or lack of support….. or gatekeeping bulls–t….. or because the system just kind of failed them, the way it fails so many black women, all the f–king time.

“And then somewhere in there, somewhere else within that mess of stories, you’ve got mine.”

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