Taylor Townsend watched in admiration as the march of moms dominated the conversation at the US Open in September. With nine mothers in the singles draw -- and three advancing to the quarterfinals -- tennis fans were inspired by their talent, grit and ability to multitask during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Townsend had a front-row seat to it all, making a run to the US Open semifinals in women's doubles with partner Asia Muhammad.
Townsend was in awe, but it was more personal. She had recently discovered she was pregnant. Still in the first trimester, she fought the urge to share her news with anyone outside of her tight-knit circle.
"It was strange being so close to the final with Asia and knowing I'll soon be part of that category," Townsend said. "I actually think for me being part of this US Open at this time was so great for me to see it's possible, to balance professional goals and aspirations with motherhood and raising a child. That was so perfectly shown this year by Serena [Williams], Victoria [Azarenka], Kim [Clijsters] and [Tsvetana] Pironkova. I know this [journey] is going to be difficult, but watching them made me really excited."
In October, Townsend revealed her pregnancy and March 2021 due date in a video posted to her Instagram account.
"My entire life, my entire career, I've heard 'You can't, you won't' and I've used it as a reason to fight hard and motivation to keep playing," she said in the video. "I'm sure this won't be any different, so I'll have to prove them wrong again. Because now I have the best reason ever to play. You might think what I've done so far is impressive but just wait until you see what I do next."
A lifetime of highs and lows
Townsend, 24, has been in the public eye for almost a decade. Her junior career was prolific -- winning the singles title at the 2012 Australian Open and the doubles titles at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open that same year. She was named the 2012 ITF Junior World Champion and finished the season at No. 1. The expectations were sky-high and her potential was undeniable, but Townsend found herself in the center of a media storm at the 2012 US Open after the USTA refused to pay for her expenses and told her to stop competing until she lost weight and got into better shape. She played anyway, and unwittingly became part of a national debate on body shaming.
Patrick McEnroe, then the USTA's head of player development, said at the time that there was a "miscommunication" regarding her expenses and insisted they were thinking of her long-term development and fitness. For Townsend, just 16 at the time, it was shattering.
"I was actually very upset. I cried. I was actually devastated," Townsend said in 2012. "I mean, I worked really hard, you know."
Today, Townsend says she holds no ill will toward the USTA but admits she doesn't have much to do with the organization. She says it gave her a chip on her shoulder and the deep-seeded desire to prove the doubters wrong.
Townsend officially turned pro for the 2013 season and made the doubles final at the CitiOpen with partner Eugenie Bouchard. By early 2015, Townsend cracked the top 100 in singles but struggled soon after, finding herself playing mostly ITF-level events. Townsend faced a 69-year-old opponent in a well-documented qualifying match for a 2016 tournament in Alabama. She won 6-0, 6-0 in just over 30 minutes but later called it a "slap in the face."
Townsend won eight doubles titles on the ITF circuit that year -- including five with Muhammad -- and her rankings in singles and doubles steadily rose. By 2018, she reached a career high at No. 61 in singles. At the 2019 US Open, Townsend achieved her greatest on-court accomplishment so far, upsetting Simona Halep, then ranked No. 4, in the second round for her first win over a top-10 player. Standing in front of an adoring crowd on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Townsend felt a sense of validation.
"It was a huge transitional point for me as a player because it really made me feel like I belong here," she said. "I belong on these stages, and playing against these players, and on any given day I can win these matches. The competitiveness and the heart and all that [has never been] where I struggle, it's more of a matter of if I believe it and if I'm willing to follow through and execute on my strategy. After playing for so many years, it was such a shift in my self-belief and knowing I belong here and I can do this."
Added Muhammad, who was in Townsend's box cheering her on: "I was in tears for her."
Townsend made it to the fourth round before falling to eventual champion Bianca Andreescu in three sets.
She opened the 2020 season with a doubles title at Auckland with Muhammad in a straight-sets victory over Williams and Caroline Wozniacki. The two notched another trophy together at the Indian Wells Challenger Series tournament in March -- the day before the BNP Paribas Open was canceled and the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
With such momentum going into the break, Townsend remained motivated during the time off.
"Taylor took a few weeks off, but then quickly realized she needed to get back to work," said Townsend's trainer, John Williams, who has worked with her for the past three years. "She is extremely regimented and self-disciplined and needs that structure. She has a huge work ethic and always works so, so hard. She's a machine, and she had seen all of that hard work -- on the court, in the gym and mentally -- really come together and pay off so she wasn't going to stop."
Townsend wasn't feeling well during the first two weeks of the World TeamTennis season in July. While playing for the Philadelphia Freedoms, she had been struggling with stomach discomfort and nausea. She chalked it up to her body adjusting to playing competitive tennis again after the four-month suspension and also thought it could be the unfamiliar food at the Greenbrier Hotel. After days of eating a bland diet with no relief, she thought she should get a pregnancy test to rule it out.
Of course that was easier said than done in 2020. Townsend was unable to leave the grounds to purchase the test due to the restrictions in place. She knew the medical facility on site had them but didn't particularly want others to know her business. She finally asked a teammate's wife if she could get one for her. Townsend didn't think it would come back positive. She was shocked when it did and immediately took two more tests to be sure.
The surprise turned to excitement, and Townsend texted her boyfriend (whose identity she would like to remain private) a picture of the positive test. He wanted to hop on the next flight from Atlanta to West Virginia but had to find a COVID-19 rapid-test site so he could enter the Greenbrier bubble. He managed to get a test -- and the negative results -- to be by Townsend's side the next day.
Townsend immediately turned her focus back on the task at hand. With the Freedoms' playoff spot already secured, Townsend was determined to lead her team to a title. She told teammate Caroline Dolehide of her pregnancy but otherwise kept the news private.
"I remember going to a team dinner and I was so quiet, and so out of it," she said. "I just had so much on my mind. And then the next day we played, and I actually played really well. It was insane, it was like I had this little boost of energy.
"I just thought to myself, 'I'm not hurt. There's nothing that I can do about it now, so I just got to keep going, keep playing, and make it through, do the best I can and then I'll get to go home.' I wasn't freaking out or anything. I had already set up an appointment for as soon as I got home. I was just focused on playing and finishing out the season strong, and that's what I did."
The Freedoms lost in the semifinals to the New York Empire, with Townsend playing doubles and mixed doubles in their final match.
Days later, Townsend's doctor confirmed the pregnancy and gave her the go-ahead to play in the Western & Southern Open and the US Open, both held in New York this year. She was impressed by the tournament's commitment to player health and safety, and that eased her mind.
"I was speechless," Muhammad said after learning of Townsend's pregnancy. "It was the last thing I was expecting. But then I was excited and knew I wanted to do everything I could to support her. I knew I was going to have to play a different kind of role, and I wanted to be there for her as a friend and as a doubles partner. She was really sick at times with morning sickness and there were some days where she was really tired, so we just tried to adjust and save her energy as much as possible for the matches."
Mentally and physically exhausted after nearly a month in New York, and uncomfortable with what she was hearing about the protocols for the French Open, Townsend opted out of going to Paris.
"I was satisfied with how I was walking away even though people didn't know why I wasn't going to be playing except Asia," she said.
Townsend headed home to Atlanta and continues to train almost every day, with three days in the gym and the rest with a set regimen on the court and at home. She is currently without a coach, having recently split with Donald Young Sr., but she hits with her sister Symone, who played collegiately at Florida A&M.
John Williams says they are focusing on maintaining her cardiovascular fitness and working on strength training and conditioning.
"My goal is to have her not fall too far down the mountain," the trainer said. "So if we can maintain a base level of endurance, now we have a solid foundation to build on and it will be an easier climb back. Basically it will be equivalent for her taking three to four months off, as opposed to maybe taking 12 months off, from a physical conditioning perspective."
Although Serena Williams and Azarenka returned to competitive tennis within six months of giving birth, Townsend has no such expectations. She said she wants to give herself adequate time to adjust to motherhood and get back in match shape. Her tentative plan is to return in time for the American hard-court season in 2022. She says Williams and Azarenka both reached out once they saw her Instagram post, and she had a lengthy phone conversation with Clijsters, who won three major titles after giving birth to her daughter.
"Kim told me I could call her any time for advice or help, and she texts me to check up on me," said Townsend. "It's so refreshing. There was a stigma for a long time about women who played professional sports and once they had kids, they were done, but Kim was one of the first to change that. And now there are so many more, and to know there are other people that have gone through what you're going through is so helpful. I'm really excited being able to talk to them, and get their advice and even learn from any mistakes they feel they made."
Lacking the career prize money, major titles or endorsements those three players have, Townsend knows her journey will be slightly different. With just one current sponsorship (with racket company Dunlop), she freely admits her "bank account looks nothing like Serena's" and she may not be able to travel with the support of a nanny.
Muhammad, who considers Townsend a close friend and her best playing partner, says she will miss having Townsend to play with in the immediate future.
"We have a certain dynamic and just a bond on court that I don't really have that with anyone else," said Muhammad. "I'm going to miss her a lot, but I can't wait for her to come back, whenever she's healthy and ready, and have a little fan with her. I love playing with Taylor and I think we can win a Grand Slam. We're not finished yet."
"I'm very optimistic for the future because I'm so excited to see what my next progression is," she said. "I don't personally feel like I've reached my max or my full potential, and I don't believe that what I did at the US Open last year is the furthest that I can go as a player. I operate with a chip on my shoulder but think the biggest transformation I've had is being able to disassociate people and what they want versus what I want.
"This pregnancy has really shined a light on that and helped me realize I don't need to prove anything to anyone."