Townsend, Young share deep connection
If there is any doubt that Donald Young and Taylor Townsend grew up like siblings, there's this snippet from their childhood in Chicago, courtesy of Taylor's mother, Sheila, as evidence.
"Donald [Sr.] used to have his summer [tennis] camp at Jackson Park behind the Museum [of Science and Industry on the city's South Side]," Sheila said. "The restroom was by the boat docks, so the kids would bring bicycles or scooters to get there, and Donald would say to Taylor [seven years his junior], 'Come on, get on, I'll take you over there.'
"She was so happy that he was giving her a half-second of his attention and he would wait until she was right behind him and take off. She'd cry, 'He left me again.' She fell for it every time. Every time."
Sheila laughed as she told the story by phone from her home in Florida on Thursday, because it is exactly the sort of thing a real big brother would do to tease his little sister. But also because the tykes are professionals now and both Taylor, 18, and Donald, 24, are in the third round of their respective draws of the French Open.
Taylor, ranked 205th and playing in her first main draw of a Grand Slam tournament as a wild card, knocked off the highest-ranked French woman and the 20th seed Wednesday, and is widely predicted to be a future star. Young, ranked 79th, is a career journeyman once thought to be the next great American tennis player who was eliminated in the first round of his previous two French Opens before upsetting 26th-seeded Feliciano Lopez on Thursday.
"People who don't know their relationship, they look at one little small aspect, which is what is the likelihood that two black kids from the South Side of Chicago playing at the facility on 47th Street would end up there," Sheila said.
"But they don't see each other like that, they just don't. That isn't how they identify. They're just Taylor and Donald, and they just play tennis. People say, 'Why does she look up to him? But she's not looking at what he's ranked or what tournament he's won. She knows what he went through and she is looking up to the person, not the player."
Donald and his parents have known Taylor since, in Donald's words, "she was just in the cradle." Sheila knew Donald Sr. when they themselves were kids on 47th Street, striking up a friendship when Sheila was in her late teens and Donald Sr. in his mid-20s and both playing at a Bally's in Hyde Park.
Donald Sr. eventually met his future wife, Illona, the couple welcoming their son Donald in 1989.
"Illona would bring him to the courts in his stroller, and he'd sit on the side while we played each other," Sheila said. "He was maybe 2 and such a good baby. As he grew up, he was always at the club dragging a racket around, really paying attention."
At 3, Donald was the ring bearer at Sheila and Gary Townsend's wedding.
By then, both Donald Sr. and Illona were also coaching, and when Sheila and her now ex-husband, Gary, had their children, daughters Simone, now 20 and playing tennis at Florida A&M, and Taylor, there was no question who would coach them.
"My whole thing," Sheila said, "was that I didn't want to pay for college, so I said to Donald, 'I want you to have them in such a position that I can almost assure them of a college scholarship.'"
When the Youngs relocated to the Atlanta area to manage a tennis facility, the Townsends followed and the families spent time together off the courts bowling and going out to dinner.
Donald Sr. left his son to be under the direction of the USTA. It was an especially unselfish move for the Youngs, who had a contentious relationship with the USTA at the time.
While Donald Jr. turned pro at 14, Townsend became the first American to hold the year-end world No. 1 junior girls' ranking since Gretchen Rush in 1982.
"I can't lie and say that was planned," Sheila Townsend said. "My vision was always to try to go for the best university you could possibly get ...
"But if anything, that's a huge testament to Donald [Sr.]. There are a lot of tennis coaches out there but very few who can say they have literally taken a kid from a small child and led them to a point where they are now playing on the highest level that there is. There are so many kids; that's a huge feat in itself. And there are so many kids whose lives he has touched [who have] gone on to great schools and become doctors and lawyers, all kinds of professionals."
In Paris, Taylor has joked that her parents are nagging her to complete her schoolwork so she can get her high school diploma from Boca Raton High, where Sheila manages the school budget.
Sheila said Taylor will take her ACTs soon.
"Education is non-negotiable, because you never know what can happen; can't put all your eggs in one basket," she said.