theGrio's 100: Taylor Townsend, pro tennis' next superstar

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Who is Taylor Townsend?

When Serena Williams comes out and publicly defends you, there’s a good chance you’re doing something right. And 2012 was all right for 16-year-old Chicago tennis prodigy Taylor Townsend. She dominated the junior tennis ranks and attracted Williams’ support in a bizarre spat with the United States Tennis Association over Townsend’s playing weight and fitness.

Townsend’s mother Sheila played tennis in college and introduced her and her sister Symone to the sport. With the help of another tennis family, the parents of current tennis pro Donald Young, Townsend moved to Georgia before catching the attention of coaches with the USTA.

Why is she on theGrio’s 100?

The New York Times reports Townsend was the first American to hold the “No. 1 year-end ranking for junior girls since Gretchen Rush in 1982.” She was discouraged to participate in the United States Open because the USTA deemed she wasn’t in peak shape. The ‘controversy’ over Townsend’s 5’6, 170-pound frame, sparked discussion about female body image in sports and ironically put the focus back on the dominant year Townsend had on the court:

“Taylor Townsend’s game reflects her disdain for being pigeonholed or penned in,” writes Karen Crouse of the New York Times. “It’s a blending of (Serena) Williams’ power, Billie Jean King’s soft hands and Pam Shriver’s conviviality.”

Townsend’s dominance of tennis in the junior ranks was unquestionable – and when Williams and other stars like former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport came out and defended her right to participate, the world took notice.

The fact that Townsend kept a steady head despite what seemed by many as a lack of support from her sport, makes her even more inspirational.

What’s next for Townsend?

The next move is a big one for Townsend:

The comparisons to Serena will continue to come Townsend’s way and she knows it. But she looks to another tennis legend for inspiration: Martina Navratilova. Townsend studies the 18-time Grand Slam singles champion by watching clips on You Tube.

“She’s awesome,” Townsend told Sandra Harwitt of “I got to hit with her and she was giving me a few pointers, like on my backhand slice, which is good because she had an unbelievable slice. And my serve. And she told me a few things I could do to tweak it so I wouldn’t miss it so much.”

With Navratilova giving Townsend advice and friends like Williams having her back – the sky isn’t the limit – it may be the starting point.

Follow Taylor Townsend on Twitter @Taylor_Townsen