Townsend uses Williams Sisters as Model

August 29, 2011

The scene in Flushing was familiar: a female African-American player with a loud, aggressive playing style attracting a large crowd, which included Richard Williams in the third row. She pumped her fist and let out a “Come on! Let’s go!” with each hard-fought winner.

But the player the fans were watching Friday was not Venus or Serena Williams in the main draw at Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was Taylor Townsend, a 15-year-old left-hander, on Court 11 in the second round of the women’s qualifying tournament. Townsend ultimately came up short against Britain’s Laura Robson, but at least one spectator left impressed.

“She’s one of the best 15-year-olds you can see today in America or I think in the world,” Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena, said during Townsend’s match. “If you just give her a few years, I think she’ll be beating a hell of a lot of people.”

Williams added: “I think she’s better than my daughters at that time. She has more variety.”

When the Williams sisters ascended to superstardom, a flood of Taylor Townsends were expected — young African-Americans picking up a racket and taking to tennis. But as in the case of Tiger Woods and golf, African-Americans have not risen to tennis stardom in the numbers many predicted.

“I’ve looked up to Venus and Serena since I was young and how they stuck together mostly,” said Townsend, who has yet to meet either sister. “That was the biggest thing for my sister and I. That’s what we looked up to — how they stuck with each other through everything and they wouldn’t be where they are without each other. When I saw them, I thought I could be them one day. That was always my dream.”

Born in Chicago, Townsend and her older sister, Symone, were introduced to tennis through their mother, Shelia, who played at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., and had befriended the former pro turned coach Donald Young Sr. as a teenager.

Shelia Townsend asked Young, whose son Donald Jr. turned pro in 2004 at age 15, to coach her daughters. When the Young family moved to Georgia in 2003 to run a tennis facility, they persuaded the Townsends that following them to Georgia would be best for the girls’ tennis careers. The Townsend family moved to Stockbridge, Ga., a year later.

“Mr. Young talked about the opportunities that it offered here with being able to play so many tournaments,” Shelia Townsend said. “The only reason why we came here was strictly for that opportunity.”

The Townsend sisters continued training under Young until Symone sustained a knee injury in June 2009 that sidelined her for the next two years.

“It was like a Williams sister thing,” Shelia Townsend said. “Symone was actually better than Taylor.”

With Symone injured, Taylor continued training under Young, but as his son continued on the pro tour and he became less available, Taylor’s improvement stalled. Last year, the family decided to send Taylor to the U.S.T.A. Training Center in Boca Raton, Fla., where she takes online classes, trains and lives during the school year.

“There really came a point in time when Taylor’s game was beginning to suffer because of the financial constraints that I was experiencing,” Shelia Townsend said. “When the U.S.T.A. opportunity came around, I knew that they would be able to provide the finances she needed in order to get the opportunities, to get the experience, to get the training that she needed.”

Taylor said her game, which is built around a heavy serve-and-volley attack (her serve reached 111 miles an hour Friday) and a knack for effective drop shots and aggressive play at the net, has improved substantially after her year in Boca Raton. Her play at the Open can attest to that.

She made her first appearance at the Open last August — the beginning of her first year at the training center — and lost in the first round of the girls singles qualifying tournament.

This year, just a few years after she was at the Open as a spectator and participated in Arthur Ashe Kids Day, she received a wild-card entry from the U.S.T.A. for the women’s qualifying tournament and defeated 28-year-old Arantxa Parra Santonja of Spain, who finished 2010 ranked No. 65 and entered the tournament at No. 122. Townsend, ranked No. 592, was the second-youngest player in the tournament — eight days older than the youngest player.

“She has come a long way in a short time,” the U.S.T.A. national coach, Kathy Rinaldi, said. “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.”

Townsend looked to be on her way to another upset Friday against Robson, who entered the tournament ranked 173rd. After losing the first set, 6-3, Townsend took the second, 6-4, and jumped out to a 5-2 lead in the third. But she struggled down the stretch, allowing Robson to recover, and lost seven consecutive points in the tie breaker.

Robson went on to defeat Ling Zhang to win a place in the main draw. The Open begins Monday.

“I got kind of tight,” said Townsend, who applied for a wild-card spot in the women’s doubles main draw and will participate in the girls singles tournament at the Open. “I had it, and obviously there are things I can do better. You learn from experiences like that, so when you have it, just take it.”

A teary-eyed Townsend met Richard Williams after the match for the first time and got some advice. “He was just like, ‘It’s just a tennis match, and it’s not the end of the world,’ ” she said. “He’s right, but it still hurts.”