Female tennis champions are rallying around junior tennis champion Taylor Townsend after reports last week that the U.S. Tennis Association will not pay her tournament expenses if she does not slim down.

Townsend, a 16-year-old tennis prodigy, is the reigning junior Australian Open singles champion and the junior Wimbledon doubles champion. Yet, the Wall Street Journal reported last week USTA officials initially denied Townsend a slot in the U.S. Open and said she would be benched for the summer unless she got into shape.

“Everyone deserves to play,” said U.S. Open winner Serena Williams in an interview with ESPN.

“She’s so sweet and she works so hard,” Williams added. “For a female, particularly, in the United States…, and African-American, to have to deal with that is unnecessary … Women athletes come in all different sizes and shapes and colors and everything. I think you can see that more than anywhere on the tennis tour.”

Martina Navratilova and Lindsay Davenport, former No. 1 players and Grand Slam winners that struggled with weight issues throughout their teenage years and their careers, also decried the USTA’s stance.

“I’m livid about it. Livid,” Navratilova said in an interview with the Journal. She added: “It speaks of horrible ignorance…. To throw this on her at 16? I’m trying to be nice here, but they totally blew it on this one.”

Davenport agreed, saying, “You cannot punish someone for their body type.”

The Chicago-born Townsend is part of a four-year-old USTA-funded development program created to boost the declining fortunes of American tennis. She is one of 25 select juniors at the USTA’s full-time academy in Boca Raton, Fla. Forty-one other juniors are also trained in Carson, Calif., and at the National Tennis Center in Flushing, the Queens, N.Y. site of the U.S. Open.

The initial decision to keep Townsend out of competition was out of concern for her longevity in the sport, officials said.

“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, in the Journal article. “We have one goal in mind: For her to be playing in in the main draw and competing for major titles when it’s time. That’s how we make every decision, based on that.”

The USTA eventually rescinded their decision and Townsend played in the Open, winning the junior doubles title and reaching the quarterfinals in singles.
But the incident raises questions about the best way to foster young talent, including addressing issues of fitness.

“Bringing out their (players’) best isn’t making them feel bad about themselves and having a horrible self-image,” Davenport said. “You get it out of them by getting them happy, by getting them excited to play, not by tearing them down.”