Chicago’s Taylor Townsend’s underdog story easy to root for at US Open

NEW YORK — In that moment immediately following her biggest singles victory in four years, Taylor Townsend let the emotions flow with an outburst born from a long self-fulfilling journey. On Court 17 at the US Open, with the crowd fully in support, she was far removed from the doubt that constrained not only Townsend’s tennis career, but also her personality and confidence.

“IT’S MY TIME,” she hollered in celebration, without the need or desire for volume control. “RIGHT NOW.”

Townsend, 27, the underdog from the South Side of Chicago, had just toppled her Brazilian opponent Wednesday, 19th-seeded Beatriz Haddad Maia, 7-6 (1), 7-5, to reach the third round of a major for just her second time since 2014.

Her story, which continues Friday against 10th-seeded Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic, is easy to root for at Flushing. It’s relatable to anybody who felt vulnerable. Inspiring, too.

“I really had to dive into my personal self and try to figure out and break down, like, how do you feel about yourself, how is it that the experiences that you’ve had have affected you when it comes to the tennis world?” Townsend said. “People talking about my weight, people talking about very sensitive subjects, how I look. Physical appearance is always judged from the very time you step out on the court.

“I really had to break down a lot of things and detach from that, really like say, ‘Look, this is where you’re at now, it’s not where you want to be, set a goal. That was the start. I set a goal.’

Weight is a taboo subject in sports, particularly involving women.

On one hand, it’s often a predictor of fitness level or susceptibility to injury, two important components of high-level athletics. Why not judge or analyze it like the efficacy of a backhand slice or baseline speed? On the other hand, there’s a very thin line between claiming weight as a problem, especially with no evidence of its hindrance, and body shaming.

Add in the toxic wasteland of social media and the conversation, no matter its intent, can turn demoralizing for the subject. Townsend traveled through that wringer. It reached a critical juncture at just 16 years old, when she was the top juniors player in the world and the star of the USTA’s development program.

Townsend said she was pulled from the 2012 junior U.S. Open because of fitness issues. She was summoned to Florida to consult a nutritionist and drop weight, leaving Townsend feeling betrayed. The fallout, which included former USTA GM Patrick McEnroe explaining the decision as a “concern for her long-term health,” effectively ended Townsend’s relationship with the organization.

“I was fat, and I was Black, so they took away my dream,” she wrote in a Player’s Tribune article.

A lot happened in the ensuing 11 years. Townsend’s singles career was slow to get off the ground. She fell out of the top 300 in the world by her third year. She recovered for a spirited run in the 2019 US Open, advancing to the fourth round — a career best for a Grand Slam — before falling to eventual champion Bianca Andreescu. Early in 2021, Townsend gave birth to a boy, Aydn Aubrey, and returned to the tour last year without the insecurities.

It showed Wednesday on Court 17. She’ll need more of that confidence Friday against Muchova, a finalist at the French Open this year.

“I said, ‘Look, when I come back, I’m going to be better than I was when I left. I said this is what I was going to do and I’m doing that,’ ” Townsend said. “I think everyone sees that, but I really had to break down myself and just understand myself more as a person. It was so cool because I embraced the environment [Wednesday]. Me showing the emotion and passion, pumped up, the crowd, and doing little stuff after I hit certain shots. Like this is me. Like, that’s me. … Now I’m just like, Hey, this is Taylor. Take it or leave it.”

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