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Tennis

Townsend smashing stereotypes amid her French Open success

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Taylor Townsend became the youngest player to reach the third round of the French Open since 2003.

PARIS -- For all the statistics that gird that the Roger Federer -- Rafael Nadal rivalry, this one gets us every time: they are the exact the same weight. Wait. How can they each weigh 187 pounds? Their bodies are completely different. Just look at their arms. Federer's have the circumference of car antennae. Nadal looks like he wears muscles as a fashion statement. Those 187 pounds are distributed in such different ways.

Oh, and they're the same height, too, 6-1 or 185 centimeters. This, too, doesn't seem right. To the naked eye, Federer appears taller. Even the unfortunate animal metaphors imply difference. Nadal is the bull, burrowing low to the ground; Federer, we're so often told, has that equine grace.

Add this to the list of tennis' virtues: it can accommodate such a wide swatch of physiques and body types. Ivo Karlovic and John Isner -- both still in the 2014 French Open field, as I write this -- are worthy of an NBA front line, standing 6-10 and 6-8 respectively. Meanwhile, David Ferrer, who reached the finals last year, wouldn't look out of place riding atop California Chrome. With extreme generosity, Ferrer is listed at 5-9, 160 pounds. The differences might be even more pronounced in the women's game. At 5-3, Dominika Cibulkova, the No. 9-seed who lost to Sam Stosur in the third round, would be in the front row of the class photo. At 6-2, Maria Sharapova, the No. 7-seed, would be in the back row. If the media guides are to be believed, they are in the same weight class.

Which brings us to Taylor Townsend. The 18-year-old from Atlanta has been one of the week one revelations of this tournament, reaching the third round with a funky and sometimes dazzling display of tennis. Here's Andy Murray's assessment: "I love the way she plays. This is a player who has a lot of talent. A talent that is rarely seen, either in men or in women."

NGUYEN: What you need to know about Taylor Townsend

One passing glance at Townsend and it's clear that she takes the stereotype of what a tennis player "should" look like and doesn't just shatter it; she then grinds it into fine, red clay. Still, observers have gone to extremes not to mention Townsend's physique. There's history here, of course. The USTA's clumsiness on this topic two years ago created a p.r. fiasco that persists.

"Just don't go there," one producer was overheard telling an announcer.

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Taylor Townsend knocked out top French player Alize Cornet in straight sets in round two.

With some trepidation, we'll try the opposite tack and go there.

There's something that is, at best, disingenuous and, at worst, dishonest about declaring the topic off-limits for discussion.

"We would never be talking about this if [Townsend] were a man," a former champion argued to me.

Totally disagree. Not only would we. We do. All the time. The NFL combine is basically a livestock show, where potential investors poke and prod and measure physical attributes of the specimens on display. The first day in any sport's training camp doubles as an opportunity to assess which players worked out in the offseason and which haven't. Even in tennis, bodies are on the table for discussion. Sharapova and Murray needed to add body mass; Mardy Fish needed to lose some.

In sports -- women's sports especially -- weight is coded as "fitness," as if to emphasize that we're not talking leeringly about looks or aesthetics, but, rather, performance. It's a work-related. Fine, but then we must make this point about Taylor Townsend: the evidence that her physique hinders her tennis is scant at best. In her second round match, she played 30 games over three sets and almost two-and-a-half hours against France's Alize Cornet (who goes 5-8, 139 pounds) Townsend won thrillingly, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 and was hardly winded.

What about her movement? Cornet hit the ball past Townsend 18 times. Townsend hit the ball past Cornet 43 times. What about back-to-front? Taylor went to the net 30 times and won 21 points. How much better would she be if she got fit, you ask? Says here, that's a faulty premise. We're not convinced she's unfit.

Today, there was little magic left in her wand. In barely an hour, she fell 6-2, 6-2 to Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain. She sprayed shots and made questionable decisions and missed one shot so badly she laughed out loud. But it wasn't because of compromised mobility or stamina.

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If Townsend looks like no other player, she does't play like one either. A lefty, she serves-and-volleys and charges the net and uses angles that never even occur to other colleagues. She is a tactician and thinker. In the monoculture of baseline bashing, Townsend stands out like the independent bookstore or the authentic burrito joint in a strip filled with Gaps and TGIFridays. Is it possible that her unique physique is ideal for her unique game? Put simply, this is her fighting weight.

What if Townsend's physique compromises her results or her ranking? What if she's doing great his week, but, in the long term, she's putting strain on her body? Well, like all athletes, she'll have a decision and can adjust accordingly. One top player here switched to a gluten-free diet. Another one had breast reduction surgery. This is what athletes do. Here's the template; you're free to make changes.

For now, though, the grass awaits and Townsend will continue on, winning matches and fans in comparable proportion. And if we're being honest, she is taxing the weight and straining the girth of this old axiom: no cheering in the press box.

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