Taylor Townsend Takes South Side Tennis to Wimbledon

In many ways, Wimbledon is designed for Taylor Townsend’s game.  The grass courts at the historic club reward the fast-paced serve-and-volley game favored by the Englewood native.
“She’s definitely someone you should watch for.  Clay and grass are the two surfaces she can really shine on based on that lefty spin…and all the things that happen on those two different surfaces,” XS Tennis’s Director of Junior Development Aaron Mabra said of the left-handed player.

Taylor Townsend honed her signature serve-and-volley play at XS Tennis on Chicago’s South Side.  

The 18-year-old breakout star came up through the ranks at Kenwood’s XS Tennis, where Mabra recruits and develops junior tennis talent.  Led by Kaumau Murray, the tennis club eschews what has become the standard model of talent development in tennis: Start kids on neighborhood courts; then send them to tennis academies in Florida or Arizona to complete their training.  The most famous of these is Nick Bollettieri’s camp in Bradenton, Florida, where Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, Jim Courier, the Williams sisters and—most recently—Maria Sharapova honed their games.  Bollettieri’s workhorse methods have been criticized as harsh by many in the tennis world, and it relies on pulling elementary school–aged students away from their families (Sharapova was seven when she first stepped on a Bollettieri court).  In contrast, XS Tennis keeps kids at home, fostering a family environment that develops competitive players who have off-court interests.
“We’re more interested in building model citizens and community leaders, and not necessarily just great tennis players…. We want our kids to be well-rounded,” Mabra said, adding that this creates a “home environment” for students like Townsend. 
Andre Agassi’s training facility in Vegas has that brand of community-centric tennis training as its aim; John McEnroe is trying to do the same in Queens, where he built his own game in the 1960s and 1970s. But XS Tennis is arguably the first to have measurable results, producing two number one juniors: Donald Young in 2005 and Townsend in 2012.  The program does this by going directly into Chicago Public Schools and culling interested and talented students from physical education classes, as well as by recruiting from schools like Francis W. Parker and the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. As a result, its junior intensive program is composed of students from all socioeconomic levels—although, “when you come in, you don’t know which kid is a millionaire and which kid is on public assistance,” Mabra stresses, pointing out another example of the club’s family environment.
Young’s and Townsend’s recent successes are not the first time Chicago has made the international tennis scene, Mabra reminds us.  It’s in keeping with Chicago’s “rich tennis history” and with facilities like Prairie Tennis Club, which has supported tennis in the African-American community for over 100 years.  Despite this, tennis fans haven’t often rooted for a Chicagoland player on the main stage; prior to Young, Laura Granville and Hinsdale’s Todd Martin, both now retired, represented the Chicago talent pool. With Townsend’s fundamentals and the recent announcement of support from Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a new XS Tennis facility in Washington Park, it certainly seems as though fans should prepare for a surge of Chicago stars.
But will they all look like Townsend, with her signature serve-and-volley play?  Mabra suggests no: That style of play—now unusual in a women’s game characterized by baseline slugfests—is all Townsend’s.  “Taylor really took to [serve and volley], and Kamau Murray really nurtured it,” Mabra said, but ultimately it was Townsend’s—not her coaches’—call.

“The way she hits the ball, the pace the she can generate, the lefty spin she has—you can’t teach those things.  She has the best chance to really throw someone off.  Look for some upsets,” he said.

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

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