As tennis players around the world make their slow return to competition this week after months away, there is one who will not be joining them for a while. In the final months of last season, Taylor Townsend announced she is pregnant and will give birth in March.
Some female players who are mothers would rather their tennis was front and centre in their profession and so her case is to be noted simply because it is a clear reflection of a recent cultural change in women’s tennis. In short, motherhood is becoming a normal career option in the sport for those who wish to take it.
“I think that 15 years ago if you were pregnant and you had a kid, it was over,” says Townsend. “The whole dynamic has just changed and I think the sport has evolved and realised that this is part of a woman’s life. This is part of what comes with being a woman. Women get pregnant, they have kids, but it doesn’t stop what you’re doing. And it doesn’t stop the path that you want to be on.”
When Townsend announced the news in October, she did so in style. In a social media video the American described in chronological order some of the many instances where people have doubted her with their toxic words and insisted she will not be perturbed by her next challenge. Her first example was most shocking: at only four years old she was told to quit tennis. “I was told ‘you’re too fat’, ‘you can’t move’, ‘you need to stop’, ‘she’s not going to make it’, ‘she’s too big’. I got all of that kind of dumb shit. That’s what I’ve heard since I started playing.”
This has been a constant theme in Townsend’s career, particularly since 2012 when, despite being junior world No 1, the United States Tennis Association asked her to withdraw from the junior US Open claiming her fitness was insufficient. Even at the US Open last year, while she was pregnant, the comments endured. “I stopped listening to that and was like: ‘I need to be happy with who I am. I have to be OK with me,’” she says. “You’re never gonna look like them, that’s fine. But that’s not stopping me from going out and whooping ass. Whatever the thing that you say is holding me back, I can use that as a way to propel me to move forward.”
The obstacles Townsend has faced have only toughened her skin and fuelled her drive. “I’m in a cool space because the things I went through as a kid, starting out, I will never allow that to happen to my child. It has given me an opportunity to learn from the things I went through and to be able to shape and change the path for my child. Because I’ll fight someone if they try to tell my four-year-old that they can’t do something. It’s just insane. Those types of people won’t be around.”
Townsend recently revealed she is in a financial dispute with her mother over endorsement funds and says this has had a significant effect on how she carries herself. Her circle is smaller. She is not prepared to trust without being certain it will be reciprocated with trustworthiness. “I’ve gone through a sifting-out process and really got rid of all the garbage. Now I’m in the place that I’m pregnant, I’m having a kid, I’m not playing right now. When I go through that process, I will know and it’s very clear what I expect.”
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In one of her last prominent appearances before the pandemic, Townsend reached the fourth round of the 2019 US Open, beating Simona Halep 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) in round two. At a time when most players spend their time running away from the net, it was perhaps the greatest net-rushing performance of this generation. She approached the net more than 100 times; in the final set she essentially attempted to serve and volley on every first and second serve.
She describes the moment as a “pivotal point” in her career that gave her the confidence to know she really can beat top players. Those ambitions are not over and Townsend is already planning to return between March and May of 2022 after taking some time to learn the ropes of motherhood. There is more to come.