Tennis: Serena Williams and Taylor Townsend - Race, Weight, USTA, and US Open

Cliff PotterCorrespondent ISeptember 9, 2012

Serena Williams is in shape, but by no means thin.
Serena Williams is in shape, but by no means thin.Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Given the history of tennis, it is a very short line. Mixed among so many white Australians and Americans, the minority winners of the US Open are very few and far between.

Richard "Pancho" Gonzalez, born poor but proud in an LA barrio. Winner of the 1948 and 1949 US Opens. An Hispanic-American whose name was spelled Gonzales, the "American" way early in his life and whose nickname may have stemmed from a cut on his face when he was a child, which was incorrectly rumored to have occurred in a knife fight.

Althea Gibson, product of Harlem was also poor. And black. Winner of the US Open in 1957 and 1958.

Manuel Santana is next. Winner of the 1965 US Open. Former ball boy from Spain.

Arthur Ashe, winner of the US Open in 1968. Always present these days at the US Open in the stadium bearing his name.

When you watch Serena Williams go for her next US Open women's title today, do not consider her achievements as something done within the normal tennis world. Instead, when you see her weight, her power, and her color, think of her achievements as an African-American in a world that is not yet through with racial and sexual insensitivity.

Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Novak Djokovic, Victoria Azarenka and all of the rest of the men and women in the quarterfinals were all white except Serena Williams. And they all have sleek, model-like physiques.

Serena Williams has a body that is bodacious in all respects. Totally dissimilar to most bodies on tour, men and women.

Williams' physique is shared with Taylor Townsend, a 16 year old African-American and the number 1 seed in the girl's juniors in singles. Taylor lost on Friday in the junior girl's US Open singles tournament, but won the US Open girls doubles title.

Like most of us, you would have thought nothing of Taylor Townsend's weight or race.

But you are not the USTA and Patrick McEnroe, at least as to weight.

We may feel that women are no longer classified differently than men, or that racial sensitivity is now practiced by almost everyone involved. This situation brings us back to reality.

According to the Wall Street Journal, "Before this year's Open, Taylor asked the USTA for a wild-card entry slot in either the Open's main draw or its qualifying tournament, which Taylor had played in last year. Her requests were denied. After the USTA asked Taylor to skip the U.S. Open junior tournament, her mother told them she'd pay her daughter's expenses herself." As Taylor's mother said, "It all kind of came as a shock to us because Taylor has consistently done quite well," she said. Her daughter, she reminded, "is No. 1, not just in the United States, but in the world."

In fact, she had been "asked to stop competing," consequently missing the USTA Girls’ National Championships in San Diego, because she had to get in better shape.

Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of the USTA's player development program, confirmed that her expenses to and at the US Open were not paid by the USTA. His excuse was not low iron at the time. "Our concern is her long-term health, number one, and her long-term development as a player," said Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of the USTA's player development program. "We have one goal in mind: For her to be playing in [Arthur Ashe Stadium] in the main draw and competing for major titles when it's time. That's how we make every decision, based on that." McEnroe also claimed there had just been a miscommunication.

Not so, said Taylor Townsend. "“There was no miscommunication,” Townsend said. “I don’t know what else to say. My mom was coming but they did not fund us for the tickets.”"

Could you have gotten to the quarterfinals of the US Open girls championship or the semifinals of the doubles if you had the weight of Patrick McEnroe and his USTA on top of you every game you played in addition to your own? Knowing that you were being penalized for your weight if not your race?

Probably not. But Taylor did.

Surely, both racial and sexual sensitivity would have dictated a different approach.

But as the Townsend situation shows us, Patrick McEnroe and the USTA do not share this sensitivity. In fact, their position remains both insensitive and appears indefensible.

So far the only disclosure of a health problem comes from, which claims that Townsend required a doctor's approval to play due to "low iron." And although Matt Cronin, a principal writer for, said that this was the reason, it apparently had nothing to do with the decision to ask Townsend not to participate in other tournaments.

We might fool ourselves by looking at the nearly all-white crowd in New York, telling ourselves that racial issues are over and that everyone involved, man or woman, white or black, is being treated fairly.

But the Townsend affair raises these questions once again. And they are questions worth an investigation. To satisfy people of color that the decision on Townsend was motivated neither by a prejudice against people who are considered overweight or based on her race.

The issue of whether the USTA's player development group run by McEnroe is racist has been raised in the past. The Williams former coach Morris King Jr. has made this claim, including by reference to his inability to get a response from them concerning coaching applications.

As for the USTA’s High Performance/Player Development department, I have been rejected for national coach positions at least a dozen times over the years. How did I learn that I was rejected? Because I am not there. That’s how I have always found out. They have never informed me through any type of communication.

Lest you believe that Morris King is just a nut, read his statements and verify them.

King pointed to the USTA's defense of several suits that have alleged race discrimination as a sign of discrimination at the USTA.

These have included the following: Zina Garrison's discrimination lawsuit for her dismissal as the Fed Cup coach which was settled by the USTA, the settled Cecil Hollins case brought by the one out of thirty or so top chair umpires claiming discrimination against black chair umpires because he had been the only one, and the resulting New York Attorney General investigation that was settled though an Assurance of Discontinuance with the USTA.

Claims and perhaps one or more cases have also been made that the wild card process of getting into tournaments is discriminatory.

So far, there is no evidence apart from this history that real discrimination existed in the decision to tell Townsend to stay away.

But given the way Serena has always looked, how can you successfully apply any weight exclusion on any player? Especially because, despite millions in expenditures to develop any top ranked player over the past five or six years, the USTA under Patrick McEnroe has failed in their task and one success they have had is told to stay home and not compete.

That McEnroe's claim that weight was the reason appears to be a false claim based on Townsend's experience at the Australian Open this year. Taylor Townsend was in both the Australian Open girls' singles and doubles, toiling well into the night, where McEnroe was present as a TV commentator.

During this January's Australian Open, "[t]he left-handed Townsend had a busy day as she defeated fellow American Krista Hardebeck 7-6 (3), 6-4, in the girls' singles semifinals to earn herself a final round match up with Russia's Yulia Putinseva. Then she and Andrew had to pull the late night shift and took a dramatic 5-7, 7-5, 10-6 [super tiebreaker] win in one hour, 44 minutes over Irina Khromacheva and Danka Kovinic."

Such a schedule does not seem to indicate a health or fitness concern over her weight.

Townsend has won or done very well in the tournaments in which she has participated. You have to have significant athletic skills to be ranked number 1 in her age group, as she has been this year.

The most tragic indictment of McEnroe's acts come from Taylor Townsend herself. "“It was definitely shocking,” she said. “I was actually very upset. I cried. I was actually devastated. I mean, I worked really hard, you know, it’s not by a miracle that I got to number one. I’m not saying that to be conceited or anything, but it’s not just a miracle or it didn’t just fall upon me just because my name’s Taylor.”

As Sports Illustrated said, "Taylor Townsend, a charming young girl who still wears her braces proudly and plays with ribbons in her hair, is still just that: a young girl. She is not the future of American tennis, she is not a policy and she is not an example. She’s just a kid playing a sport she loves and she’s pretty darn good at it. Her body is still developing, her self-esteem still ebbing and flowing, and the last thing she needs, not as a tennis prodigy but as an adolescent, is her own tennis federation telling her she’s physically deficient." SI also points out that it is through wins and losses in big tournaments that players become better.

Both Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova have denounced this decision. “You cannot punish someone for their body type,” Davenport said. “I’m livid about it. Livid,” Navratilova said. She added: “It speaks of horrible ignorance.”

Denying Townsend any money to travel to the US Open, and asking her to stay away from competitions, tarnishes the efforts made by the US Open and the USTA over the past few decades to eradicate racism and treat women fairly.

The USTA must not bury this incident, as it seems to have done so far, but instead must publicly deal with all those involved. At least some official position is appropriate even though there is less of a public furor than one might expect over McEnroe's decision.

Is it a coincidence that this situation was reported by the Wall Street Journal apparently on September 6, 2012, and then by The New York Times on Friday, but and the USTA apparently have not published a thing on this incident?

It is tempting to say that singling out weight is more a case of class prejudice rather than racial. After all, it is a stereotype in today's culture that if you are overweight, then you are poor.

A few generations ago, tennis was largely the province of moneyed men and women. Professional tennis was played at private clubs, organized by individuals, and treated as if it were an all-white sport. Indeed, at one time, being white from an English speaking country was an almost required feature of tennis players.

And almost never being overweight.

But there is clearly a lack of racial sensitivity too.

Surely, the USTA or Patrick McEnroe did not consider that McEnroe's decision might be considered racist or it would have been handled very differently. Especially when Serena is the antithesis of the typical svelte tennis player and has a fairly unique body type for tennis, the potential for others to interpret the move as racist is clearly present.

We have moved a long way on matters of race because of the many great athletes who were able to overcome barriers against them and their play.

One of the greatest players of all time, Althea Gibson is the most prominent for the role she played in breaking the color barrier in tennis despite overcoming a very poor family life. As Venus Williams said when Gibson died in 2003:

"I am grateful to Althea Gibson for having the strength and courage to break through the racial barriers in tennis," it said. "Althea Gibson was the first African-American woman to rank No. 1 and win Wimbledon, and I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps. Her accomplishments set the stage for my success and through players like myself, Serena [Williams] and many others to come, her legacy will live on."

The Williams sisters and their father have reported about the racism they faced from the crowds. "In the semi-finals of the US Open last year [2002], the American crowd supported Amélie Mauresmo of France rather than Venus: for the overwhelmingly white, middle-class crowd, the bond of colour clearly counted for more than the bond of nation." As the Guardian noted in the same article on racism in tennis: "At the Indian Wells final in 2001, Serena was jeered the moment she appeared on court and was booed throughout. Her father, Richard, described how, as "Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me nigger. One guy said, 'I wish it was '75 [alluding to the Los Angeles race riots]; we'd skin you alive.'"

They did not return to Indian Wells.

And it was only in Venus' last match at this year's US Open, potentially her last, when she said she finally felt like an American because the crowd was behind her.

Just as the Williams sisters demanded and obtained equality with boycott and regular reporting of the racism they faced from the crowds, other prejudice must also be banished including any prejudice that might exist due to a player's weight.

Despite the many claims of Richard Williams of racism, there has never been any broad, public investigaton by the USTA about his and Morris King's complaints. Why?

Is the Townsend situation more of the same? Or is it a stereotype that comes with being poor, where more overweight people are found today.

It may be coincidence, but last year The New York Times did another article on Taylor Townsend. The article lauded her progress in tennis, and interviewed and extensively interviewed Richard Williams, the Williams sister's father and former coach. And they spoke with Kathy Rinaldi, USTA's national coach. What did she say at the time?

“She has come a long way in a short time” . . . “When I first saw her a year and a half ago, she had a lot of potential. She has more discipline with her shot selection now and knows her game and style more. Her work is paying off.”

Tennis associations should never make sixteen year olds concerned about either race or their bodies, especially when no empirical evidence of Townsend needing to tone up her body before she competes. In fact, if you look at Townsend's record, you begin to believe that this is all made up. By the USTA's Patrick McEnroe.

You might also consider whether she may be Serena Williams' successor.

If your physique looks like Serena Williams, perhaps the best women's player in history, what more needs be said?


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