Taylor Townsend rising up the rankings

After playing in her first Grand Slam event last year at the U.S. Open, 15-year-old American Taylor Townsend will compete in the girls' singles competition at the Australian Open. USOpen.org/USTA

When she was 14, Taylor Townsend’s life wasn’t really all that different from that of any other high school freshman. With a mix of anxiety and excitement, she was just settling in at Charles Drew (Riverdale, Ga.), where her father, Gary, is the principal.

What a difference a year makes.

Now 15, Townsend is preparing to compete in her second Grand Slam tennis event when the girls’ singles tournament begins next week at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Ranked No. 27 in the International Tennis Federation (ITF) junior rankings, she’s the top-ranked American girl in the juniors draw Down Under.

“I’m going to take a lot of pictures and send them to [my family],” she said. “I’m going to do the best I can to make my family feel like they’re there with me.”

After spending just a month at Charles Drew, Townsend decided to pack her bags and leave the security of her close-knit family for dorm life at the United States Tennis Association’s Training Center in Boca Raton, Fla. Instead of attending school, Townsend studies via an online program and spends unrestricted hours playing tennis.

Townsend admits that one of the biggest adjustments she’s encountered is learning how to handle schooling on her own. And considering that her dad is an educator, school remains a priority.

“It’s been a really tough transition,” Townsend said. “The first year was really hard because I really didn’t know what I was doing. What made it even harder is I went to regular high school with my dad for a month before I went down to the USTA. I was accustomed to high school and I was really into it. I’ve had to learn how to prioritize my time.”

Townsend’s sacrifices are clearly paying off. At 15 -- she’ll turn 16 in April -- Townsend has become an independent teen and a far better player since joining the USTA program.

“She’s grown in so many ways,” said Kathy Rinaldi, a 1985 Wimbledon semifinalist who is Townsend’s USTA-appointed coach. “Her game has improved tremendously. She’s come a long way discipline-wise, fitness-wise. As a person she’s matured. It’s just been a lot of fun to see her put in the work, time and effort and see it pay off.”

Before the decision to leave the Atlanta area, Townsend trained from age 8 with Donald Young Sr., the father of top 40-ranked Donald Young. Townsend grew up playing alongside Young and the two have forged a close friendship despite their seven-year age difference -- they played together in the 2011 U.S. Open mixed doubles tournament, losing in the first round.

“I’m so glad to see her doing so well,” Young said Friday, already on-site at the Australian Open. “I still see her a lot when she comes home to visit. And she still talks to my dad all the time.”

The solidly built Townsend has excellent athletic skill and is quick around the court. She has the advantage of a left-handed serve, a big forehand and power shot-making. Unlike many players of today, Townsend plays offense and enjoys approaching the net to volley.

One significant change Rinaldi made upon Townsend’s arrival in Boca Raton was making the teen compete against peers. Since she was 10, Townsend had been playing up in age groups -- at 11, she competed in the 16s age group. She’s now back to playing in advanced age groups, but with a better understanding of her strengths.

“She was always playing up, so I told her she was going to have earn her way up and deserve to play up, and she’s done that,” Rinaldi said. “That had a lot to do with her development.”

Townsend announced herself as a player to watch at the U.S. Open in September. It wasn’t her performance in the junior event -- she reached the third round -- that put her on the map. Rather, Townsend and fellow American junior Jessica Pegula, the daughter of Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, received a wild card into the women’s doubles tournament and more than held their own. The two upset Liga Dekmeijere and Jelena Jankovic 6-3, 6-3 in the second round before losing.

The main-draw opportunity was an eye-opener for Townsend, who had the privilege of seeing what life can be like as a successful pro.

“It was my first Grand Slam, and it was absolutely amazing,” Townsend said. “On top of all the perks you get like the car, the locker room and laundry, the competition was amazing. I just loved the fight and I loved the hype.”

Following the U.S. Open, Townsend won the Pan American ITF Championships in October and reached the Eddie Herr International Junior Championships semifinals in December.

Not surprisingly, there’s already buzz that Townsend could be the player capable of following in the footsteps of Serena and Venus Williams. That kind of pressure, however, is not what Townsend needs at this juncture, and Rinaldi is carefully downplaying any comparisons.

“I think she admires Venus and Serena for their accomplishments and what they’ve done for the sport,” Rinaldi said. “I don’t think she compares herself to them because she’s her own person and those are big shoes to fill. I try to teach the girls to stay in the moment.”

And for Townsend, this moment is at Melbourne Park.

“I’m actually very excited,” Townsend said. “I see it as a great opportunity, and I’m hoping I can do really well.”