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BLACK TENNIS PRO'S EXCLUSIVE! - SHELIA TO SHELIA: An In-Depth Conversation With Shelia Townsend, Mother Of World No. 1 Junior Taylor Townsend

Friday, September 14, 2012


Nobody, I don't care if it's tennis, if you are a business owner, if you are running a corporation or if you're in school... nobody is going to attain the level of No. 1 being lazy, being undisciplined, uncommitted and without sacrifice.

~~ Shelia Townsend


On Friday, September 7, the Wall Street Journal reported a story with this headline Why the USTA Benched America's Best Junior - Taylor Townsend May Be the World's No. 1 Junior Girl, but Her Coaches Say She Needs to Get in Better Shape. Subsequently, additional reports from bloggers to ABC News interviewing both Taylor and her mother, Shelia Townsend, have filled the conversation and drawn the ire of many of those who have either read or heard of the situation... including myself.

After viewing the ABC Good Morning America segment on the situation, I became even more livid at the report that Patrick McEnroe, General Manager of USTA Player Development told ABC that "the Open was never off limits to Taylor, that they simply suggested she take a pass after she struggled with her game earlier this summer" and that they "apologize for the miscommunication." Also during the segment I purposely observed Taylor and her Mother to ascertain their general coherency in light of just hearing that the viewing audience is supposed to believe that they BOTH misunderstood the same thing. They both appeared and sounded reasonable and well spoken to me... you know, can hear, understand, respond and talk and speak in English as well. The basic components necessary for making sound decisions based upon information given.

Subsequently, I did a bit of research and read a number of articles posted on the subject on various Internet sites. Yet, I continued to be mystified as to what was the actual root of the issue... something was missing. The 2+2 equation was never equaling 4 i.e., Why pull her now, at the US Open? Why wasn't she previously approached with these concerns? Why can't this be resolved after the Open? Why is Taylor currently being allowed to play if her fitness is truly an issue? If there was a "miscommunication" as the situation has been deemed by Patrick McEnroe, why wasn't the issue quickly clearly communicated to the Townsends?

With all of the frustration quickly building, opinions being voiced and articles being written, I didn't feel sufficiently confident on the facts of the matter to share my view with those who follow me here on Black Tennis Pro's. At that point, and prior to committing to a position on the matter, I needed firsthand information from the only reliable source I deemed worthy - the mother of this highly touted teen, Shelia Townsend.

I quickly located Ms. Townsend on Facebook, sent her a message and awaited a response. On Wednesday, September 12, she gave me a call and I had the pleasure of having a conversation with her on the matter.

After speaking with Ms. Townsend a lot of my anger subsided, not because I was now satisfied that they had been treated fairly, or that the situation had been resolved appropriately. I was now enlightened on the home foundation that loves and supports Taylor in all things. I was made confident that Taylor's mother and father firmly guide all that is required in rearing their children, and that no decision made outside of the Townsend household will ever prevent Taylor or any other member of their family from achieving their dreams.

Here is our conversation, I'm sure you'll find it as edifying as I did.

Hello Ms. Townsend, thank you so much for responding to my message, I really wanted to speak with you about what's going on, so I truly appreciate it.

Oh sure, no problem.

I was so glad to see how calm you remained during the interview that you and Taylor did with ABC, because my composure was not likewise just watching. What I'm most interested in up front is how this entire situation evolved. What was it specifically that led the USTA to approach Taylor with this matter?

Ahhhh... we don't know.

When we were inquiring about why they made the decision that they made, all we were told was that it was because of her fitness. And so I asked, exactly what did you use to determine her fitness level? Are you using previous documentation that you have in assessing her current fitness level? Was there a variance in the results? What is it?

I would like to see the evaluation report that you are using to make this decision, because if there is something that will facilitate my helping Taylor to understand, then you need to share that with me. You're just saying something without providing data, being very subjective. If you have something that is concrete, for instance - last week you did five of something, and this week you did one - who can argue with the numbers... you can't. But this was something where we weren't being given any information, they were just saying "her fitness."  So I asked them, "what is your definition of fitness? Does she need to run this many miles in this many minutes, does she need to do this many sit-ups in this amount of time, this many forehands - what is it? What are you using to define fitness?' And that's what we could never get an answer on.

And then I thought 'well surely its not because she hasn't done everything that she (her coach) has asked her to do. And in addition to whatever she asked her to do, Taylor is doing extra things on her own. We just didn't know. So Taylor was trying to do whatever she thought would help, and I helped facilitate whatever we thought they were looking for. But without any information, it was like grabbing at air. We didn't know if they wanted her to weigh a certain amount, or have a certain body mass index - what is it?

When and how were you all approached? Was she approached alone, or did they come to you?

Well, when it first started, she was approached alone, then I addressed the issue, but I still couldn't get any definitive answers from them.

Was it her coach, Patrick McEnroe or someone else that approached you all?

No, it wasn't Patrick McEnroe, we never had any direct contact with him at all. All of my correspondence was directed to, well it wasn't really even directed at her coach. My correspondence was primarily with the Director of Women's Tennis at that time.

Okay, now all of this, of course, happened prior to the US Open ever starting. What specifically was going on with Taylor at that time and how did she bring you into these new circumstances?

Well, she was at a tournament in Vancouver and I wasn't there with her. She called me and she told me that they had told her that they wanted her to withdraw out of the US hard courts and the US Open. They said that the reason that they wanted her to do that was that they wanted to take that block of time to really work on her fitness and conditioning.

She called me on a Tuesday, and I told her 'don't withdraw out of the tournament,' because if I could get everything together, that I would take her to San Diego so that she could play that event because it is the equivalent to Kalamazoo for the girls, where she possibly could have earned a wild card into the main draw for singles and doubles at the US Open.

(That automatic wild card went to USTA Girls' 18s National Champion Victoria Duval.)

I was trying to get things together but it was all happening so fast. Like I said, she found this out on a Tuesday, and was due to report to San Diego on Sunday, but was in Vancouver. I wasn't able to get everything together where I could take her to the event myself. But had I been able to get the resources together, I would have taken her. So I told her to just continue as she was, but absolutely do not withdraw out of the US Open because we had already been planning for that. It's not like it was something that suddenly dropped into our laps.

Now, when you decided that Taylor was going to play, had the USTA informed you that they wouldn't pay, or was there any further conversation?

Well, there decision was what they had already told her, that they wanted her to sit out the tournament. I told them that I heard what their decision was, but my decision was that Taylor would be participating in the event.

At that time, you went ahead and took care of the financing?

Yes.

My next question to Ms. Townsend began, "Tell me what your perspective is, how are you feeling about he situation, because any and all of the people that I speak with are just up in arms - my ability to speak English is being affected! (It was the first time that I heard Ms. Townsend laugh.) I then shared with her that I told those who I was speaking with, "before we storm the castle, let me try and contact Taylor's mother so that we have the truth of the matter." 

Well, I... it's so many different layers of things as it relates to how I'm feeling.  My whole thing was, I wanted my daughter to play - I wanted her to play, because she wanted to play. My feelings were, when it was really in the heart of it, 'how can you say this girl isn't fit, with all that she's been able to accomplish?  She would not have been able to accomplish the things that she had up to that point, if she was not fit.

Nobody, I don't care if it's tennis, if you are a business owner, if you are running a corporation or if you're in school, nobody is going to attain the level of No. 1 being lazy, being undisciplined, uncommitted and without sacrifice. So, nobody is about to deny her that opportunity. They have their opinion and I have mine. She has earned it, she has proven that she is more than capable, so she will be there.

Initially, I was really upset about the whole thing, I mean, 'how dare you.'  My issue was this, 'there is a way to do any and everything. You do things decently and in order.' I told them, 'at this particular juncture of  the evolution of this sport, any top ten player, whether football player, basketball player, you can go down the line, even in golf, what top athlete is not always working on their fitness, because they understand the evolution of their sport and the relevance and importance of having your body in the best condition that it can possibly be in.

Taylor is 16, we're talking about people who are adults. However, Taylor does understand that in order for her to get to the next level, that she has to focus in on her fitness and conditioning - they all do, so what's the big deal? From that aspect, I told them, had you done things differently, it probably never would have even come to this.Why all of a sudden now, at this particular time, is it such an issue?

That is exactly what I'm not understanding.

You can do all these things that you're talking about that you want to do, all of those things can start after the Open.  They could dedicate six to eight weeks, or whatever and when the end of the year events come, then her fitness level would be better than it is now.  Why all of a sudden with her in the middle of a season, she's come off of a win... Taylor won the Australian Open, she came home, I was still living in Atlanta, I did bring her home for a couple of weeks because of some personal issues with our family that she needed to be there for. Did I remove her from the program? No I didn't. I brought her home so that I could take care of personal family matters, then she went back to the program. When Taylor returned back to the program, no I had not been able to duplicate what is done in the program, but I did my best to mirror it while she was at home. Once she was back into the program full time, Taylor was not doing anything less than the quarterfinals and the rounds of 16. Her record speaks for itself.  How many people can say, or match her record, that in a year's time, out of the four grand slams she's gotten championships whether singles or doubles out of three of them.

Tell me this, after you temporarily brought Taylor home, did you get the impression that the leave caused an issue?

Not initially, no. Because I  told them that it had nothing to do with her tennis, that it was a personal family matter. I didn't want them under the impression that after she won the Australian Open that I was pulling her out to take her to other places, the leave had nothing to do with that. The issues that needed taking care of, just happened to be at that time, and that was the time that I took.

Later on I do think that it was some of the issue, because always in my discussions with them, they would always reference back to that and I wondered, 'why, since she's been back with them since March, it's nearly the end of the year and they are still talking about something that happened at the beginning of the year.'

Taylor, last year, played five events at the US Open - three on the professional side and two on the junior side.  She didn't even have the same accomplishments at that time. So why is it now, when her accomplishments are so much better, now her fitness is deemed to be less... it makes no sense.

It's mind boggling to me, and I believe that it's what is on the minds of so many others observing the situation. 

Right. I don't understand, how are you going to have a girl that's in your program, who's No. 1, she's been to every grand slam around the globe, and you mean to tell me that something is right here in our back yard and you're saying you don't want her to participate?

Incredible.

I think that Taylor had enough variables going for her that there is an interest in her. Because if she was ranked, say the number 500 Junior, do you think this would have gotten this much attention? The answer is no. But because she's been able to accomplish these things, it brings a different kind of light. And the sad part about it is, she's not the only one that this is happening to. She's not the only one with whom these types of conversations are being discussed, and not just girls.

Again, there's a way to do any and everything if you do it decently, if you do it in order. On the most simple basic level, its the words that you say and if they are matching up with your actions, then everybody is going to have a buy in. But if you're saying one thing, and doing something else, especially with kids, then it's going to be so confusing when they are already going through enough as a teenager anyway.

Exactly. This has been a large part of the public discourse. You have a 16-year-old girl here whose self image, worth and confidence could easily be affected.

I just thank God that I was able to be here. Because there's no way... if you think that this is mind boggling for you, imagine what it must be like for her at 16. There would have been no way that she would have ever been able to exactly verbalize and communicate effectively to me what was going on, all of the nuances of what was happening, if I was still not here.

How is Taylor feeling about all of this right now?

Taylor... I have just been so proud of her. I think that she has handled herself with such dignity and grace through this whole thing. You know why? Because we never did anything maliciously. Taylor just wanted to play, the girl just wanted to play. The fact that she has all of these things going on, its been like, "Oh, okay." But as far as her self esteem - well,  I knew that we were going through all of it and everything was unraveling, but I knew that three things had to be paramount for her to at least be in a state of mind where she could go out and give herself the best shot. I knew that we had to stay prayerful, I knew that she had to know that she had support, that people were supporting her and affirming her and continuing to build her up, and that she just felt loved. That she was in an environment where she just felt good in that environment. So I knew that if I could, despite everything that was going on, and all of the obstacles that she had to overcome, if those three things could be present because of what was going on, that 'it's not just your mom telling you you're the best, or your sister or your dad telling you that you're great, but that you have other people that are saying this too.' 

Just the fact that she was there, and have people come out. We had friends to come up, we had family to come up and watch her at various times. And just her knowing that these people were in the audience watching her, it gave her such a supportive feeling and foundation that, "Yeah, there's some people here that have my back."

It is so good to hear that Taylor has this kind of support, because without question, family comes first, and you sound like that's what you're all about.

Oh yeah.

And it's like I said, there are other kids that this is happening to, but there voices are not being heard.  You know, hopefully, if Taylor has to be the vessel/vehicle... we are a religious family, and we have a belief - I don't believe that things happen for no reason. We may not understand the reason, we may not like what's going on, and it might hurt really bad, but I believe in God, and he takes you through something to get you to something. And Taylor may just be in the right place for this to happen.

I have such a different perspective having her being away, and now being here and it is invaluable that the family stay close to their kids whether it's tennis, whether it's another sport or something else where the kids are really excelling, the parents have to stay close to their kids. And with this being a predominantly white elitist sport, it's even more imperative, that not just black kids, but any of the minority kids have somebody close to them, because their are issues and situations that come up and if there's not someone experienced around, how are they going to understand it and deal with it. They won't be able to simply because they haven't had that experience before.

How has your experience been with the USTA overall?

I think that there's a time and a season for everything. When we made the decision to allow Taylor to come to the USTA, she had only been trained by Mr. Young.     

And you're speaking of Donald Young, Sr., father of another World No. 1 Junior.

Yeah, he's been around me and my family since he and I were teenagers. Other than me playing with her, he was her only coach.  So it was a huge decision  for us to let her go. We were having some changes in our family dynamics and I couldn't afford it because at that time, our oldest daughter Symone was also playing competitively as well.  So I had two, and with the dynamics changing in our family I just couldn't afford it like I had before. So, when the opportunity came, Donald talked to us about her participating in the program and he encouraged us to do it. At that time he was telling me that she needed to live down there, and I wasn't prepared to just move down there when she might not even like it, and I would have relocated for nothing. So I wanted to wait and see what was going to happen before I made the decision to relocate.

Once I saw some things happening, I knew that I needed to be there. So on blind faith, I just came on down. I didn't have a job, I got my apartment pretty much doing everything online, it was just on blind faith.  I knew that she had to have somebody here with her, because at the end of the day, despite Taylor's tennis ability she was just 15, she's still a kid. Their responsibility is not to raise my daughter, that's my responsibility and her father's responsibility. They don't have the same principles, moral ethics... they're not trying to instill the things that I want, that's my responsibility. They are responsible for ten percent, and I'm responsible for the rest of the ninety.  That's why I felt like I had to get down there.

They have afforded her a lot of opportunities that I wouldn't have been able to afford her. So, has it been all bad? No. Could there be some improvements? Absolutely. But what organization can't stand some improvement.

Of course, nothings perfect.

Right. So, I don't say everything was bad, everything happens for a reason, everything has a season. Who knows where life is going to take us from this point.  At the end of the day, I want my daughter to be in an environment where she is surrounded by people who care about her, whose words and actions match up, and she's happy, she's having fun, she's enjoying herself, and she's putting in the work to be able to obtain the goals for the things that she want to do.  That's all that I want, and I don't think that's too much to ask.

Not at all. To your credit, she seems to be such a poised young lady in addition to her talent. She has some "home training" as my mother would say. And I think that's part of the concern for her in this situation. She has presented herself as nothing other than a bright talented teen, and those of us parents watching want to make sure she stays that way.

As a parent, that kind of compliment far outweighs any trophy, when somebody else says that your child is a mannerable person, and is presenting the values you instill in her, that's the reward.

I know exactly what you mean, my daughter is 24 years old and her behavior and welfare are no less important to me now than when she was Taylor's age. 

Yes, we have to protect our children because they can't protect themselves, and I don't want her to be living in fear. Because even as an adult, this was a bit of a scary move for me too, coming into so many unknown variables, having no job, and the list goes on and on.

What's the plan, is it to continue her training as is with the USTA?

I don't know at this time. As I said, Taylor has opened the door for a lot of opportunities for herself. We just need to do what's in the best interest of Taylor. That is what's first, and paramount. I am her advocate, her dad is her advocate and we just want her in the best environment to grow and develop. If that's with the USTA, that's fine - if it's not there, that's fine too.

At the end of our conversation I said "I thank you so very much for sharing your time and story with me Shelia. The first thing I noticed when I went to your Facebook page looking for some way to contact you, was how you spelled your name - I knew right then that you were right on time, because you spell Shelia the "right" way." We both had a good laugh at that. I let her know how important it was for me to hear the story directly from her and not take the multiple stories out there as brass fact.

Is there anything else that you would like to share about Taylor, yourself, what you all are up to, any moves that you all are making?

No, I just hope that this facilitates a positive dialogue for the USTA, not just regarding myself and Taylor, but for others who find themselves in similar situations. She is not the first, and I don't think that she'll be the last. Hopefully she will, but if the organization doesn't improve, or have the ability to make changes, if they don't really take a look at some of the things that they are doing, then it's just going to continue to perpetuate. This will just be another story, and in time it will go away, people will forget and the same thing will happen again.

Also, hopefully they will be a bit more conscientious about some of the things that they are doing.  One of the things when I was sitting down talking to them, I said, 'you are a different type of school, you need to look at the coaches as teachers and the tennis courts as another type of classroom. And how would you feel if your child came home from school and said their teacher did blah, blah, blah, how would that make you feel? Don't get it misconstrued that just because you are a tennis coach and are on a tennis court. First you are a teacher - you are a teacher - and you have a greater responsibility just like the teachers in your child's school of bricks, mortar and steel, and they have a huge impact on that child's development, whether it's positive or negative.  Those people have a huge, huge impact, because they spend more time during the day than you spend with your kids. And they have a greater responsibility, as a teacher, they are held to a higher standard. I don't know that they really look at themselves in that particular way.  But a good and great teacher will produce a great student and that student will go on to do great things. Personally, I think they need to reevaluate how they do things and how they look at some of the roles. Hopefully this will generate some kind of positive change.

As we again began to conclude our conversation, I thanked Shelia again and told her that I think people will look at the situation a bit differently after reading this, because I now felt differently about it. She then turned the interview tables and asked "Well how do you feel?" This is what I shared with her.

"The first thing I feel better about is you, as her mother. A strong person providing the family life that Taylor needs, and that NOTHING will be done at the USTA or anyplace else unless her parents approve of it because she's your daughter first and last.

The most important thing for me is that I no longer feel as if Taylor is being "beat up," if you will, by this big organization and that whatever goes on at the USTA with regards to Taylor has to come through you and her father. That you all are her mainstay. That releases that parental need of mine to protect this child. Now I know that she has that protection in her own parents."

Yeah, they can make it hard sometimes, but they only make me better and keep it moving.



This interview is the sole property of  Black Tennis Pro's. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Posted by Shelia

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