By Ashlee Woods
Existing as a Black woman in a sport like tennis comes with a plethora of challenges. It’s a part of the territory. It can be cruel how hard it is to make it if you don’t look a certain way.
Taylor Townsend is one of the rare exceptions.
Townsend had one of her best results since returning from maternity leave: making the U.S. Open women’s doubles final with Caty McNally. This run means just that much more when viewed as yet further proof that the human body is capable of wonderful things when the mind is in sync with it.
Back in 2012, at the tender age of 16, Townsend was at the top of the junior girls’ heap. Fresh off wins at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, she was forced to go into an eight week training period and denied a U.S. Open wildcard. Her hopes of competing in the tournament were all but dashed. Doctors found that her conditioning issues were related to anemia. What USTA thought was a fitness issue was actually a health issue. Yet they still wouldn’t send her to Flushing Meadows.
“Just take a second and think about all this and ask yourself, ‘What do you think “fit to play” really means,” Townsend wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “What are we really talking about here?”
What Townsend is talking about here is a harsh reality for fat, Black women in America and across the globe. If you don’t ‘look’ healthy on the outside, you’re not healthy. It’s an unrealistic standard that has permeated the sport for generations. Townsend was at the top of her game with an autoimmune disease and it still wasn’t enough for the USTA.
This run to the final — alongside every single other win Townsend has had since leaving the USTA— is a reminder that when a person understands their worth, very few people can tell them differently. Townsend knew that she was physically and mentally built differently. She also knew that she could still succeed in this sport.
Patrick McEnroe, the head of talent development at USTA when Townsend was there, had to hand a finalists’ trophy to the very woman he had tried to stop. The very woman that the USTA told was not fit to play.
It turns out that Townsend was not only fit to play. She was – is! – fit to lead. She’s fit to be a mother to her baby boy.
She’s fit to win.
“I’ve put in the work,” Townsend said after this loss. “I’ve earned my way to be here and I think everyone sees that. I’m going to continue to put my head down and grind and this is going to motivate me to go even harder. Watch out for 2023.”