Climbing Up That Hill

Terrance Purdy, Jr. for The Players' Tribune

So I had my son Adyn last year, in March, and I started back hitting in the middle part of October. It’s funny, people keep asking me how I bounced back “so fast” lol. And I’m like, “Hell, no. It felt like forever!!”

For the first six weeks, maybe two months after AJ was born, I felt amazing. I was like, This is great. Things are going well. He’s sleeping, he’s eating, and everything like that. I was honestly kind of shocked that I felt as good as I did, but I just accepted that I felt great and things were going well. I think that’s why I was surprised when out of nowhere something shifted. I can’t really explain it, but one day, something started to feel off. I didn’t feel like my normal self anymore, and my intuition was telling me, Hey, something’s not right. You need to say something

I’d dealt with depression before, and I’d made it worse by shutting everyone out. So this time I was really adamant about not letting myself turn inward. I have a strong village of people around me who I know I can be vulnerable with — without feeling embarrassed or like I’m going to be judged in any way — and I leaned on them. And I think that was the start of me being able to open up about a lot of things. I had to look deeper into what was going on with me, and dive into issues that have always been a little bit more uncomfortable for me to think about. The self-image issues that I have, both from being in the tennis world and outside of it, and how all of those things tie into both me as a person and me as a player. It’s like I had to finally open that dark chest that I’d kept closed for so long.

I can’t really explain it, but one day, something started to feel off.

Taylor Townsend

Going through that helped me move forward and start my journey back to the court on the right foot. I had to make sure that I was coming back with a good frame of mind, so being open and willing to go through those hard things, I think that was the first hurdle. I’ve had a lot of time in the past year to reflect on my journey. And I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to kind of … I wouldn’t say rewrite my story, but a chance to start on a new foot and to show people where I am at this point in my life. I’m not the young Taylor with the braces and bows in her hair anymore lol.

I’ve always said that this sport has a lot of overlap with different facets of life because — excuse my French — a lot of shit shows up when you’re on court. And if you’re trying to hide it or put Band-Aids on it, the Band-Aids are going to pop off. My coach said something the other day that sums it up perfectly: “We don’t want to put Band-Aids on bullet holes.” This is a high pressure sport, so your stuff is going to come out if you haven’t dealt with it. You may be able to hide it for a match, but seven matches??? In front of crowds?? Good luck.

Terrance Purdy, Jr. for The Players' Tribune

The hard part is learning and understanding what those things in your life are — the things that work in your favor and then the things that mess you up — and how you can balance them all out. You have to learn to roll with the punches and keep it moving.

When I finally returned to the court, I felt better than I had when I left. That was my main goal from the outset, so to achieve it felt amazing. The tournament in Charleston, South Carolina, that I won definitely felt like something worth celebrating. Not because I won, but because of how I won. In several of my matches I had been down a lot and then had to fight back — but not fight the other person, fight myself. I had to get to a mental space where I could accept that whatever happens, happens. And the minute I let go of the outcome, let go of what was happening on the other side, let go of what I wasn’t doing — or what I wasn’t doing well or what I wasn’t feeling — that’s when I was able to play free. I was just like, I have this. It’s integral. It’s in me. 

Hearing about Serena’s plans to retire actually made me reflect on the game a lot.

Taylor Townsend

That moment was transformative for me, because for like 2.2 seconds I reached the top of a big hill that I’d been climbing for a long time. And of course, as soon as I got over that hill, I went to Europe, and it was like a mountain was in front of me. 

So, it’s a constant roller coaster, but it’s been really fun. This whole week I’ve been damn near pulling my hair out!! I probably don’t have any more edges anymore lol!

But it definitely feels great to be back in the U.S. Open. (:

Terrance Purdy, Jr. for The Players' Tribune

I know the bar that I set for myself — and that my coach has for me and my team — is incredibly high. And although I’m really appreciative and grateful for everything that has happened to get me to this point, I still have a lot of work to do. So that’s where my head is right now. 

I’ve always had that grind mentality, where it’s like, Yeah, you’ve done certain things, but that doesn’t mean that you made it. And even when you make it, you haven’t made it because then everyone’s trying to get you. You see it with Serena, who just announced her retirement. Nobody felt sorry for her when she stepped on a court — Raducanu went and played her hard a few weeks ago in Cincinnati. I watched that whole match. That’s always been the nature of this game. We’re competitors, and we have extremely high standards for ourselves.

Hearing about Serena’s plans to retire actually made me reflect on the game a lot. It really hit me that this is the end of an era.  This is the end of a tennis legend’s career that I’ve been watching for the last 20, 25 years. Watching Serena compete had a huge impact on my life. She showed me and my sister both when we were growing up everything that was possible for people that looked like us. You only need to see one example, and in our case, we got lucky. We saw two. Seeing what was possible, through Serena and Venus, gave me that little glimmer of hope — as far off as it seemed and as it felt, to say, No, I can really do this. 

I know I’m where I need to be in order to compete and to win.

Taylor Townsend

And now, I’m at a stage in my life where I understand the deeper meaning of what they’ve accomplished. They’re trailblazers. They struggled so that we wouldn’t have to. The road that they paved, the opportunities that they created, the things that they sacrificed — whether we know it or not — to be able to play this sport, compete in this sport, and be accepted in the sport the way that Black women are now, I think that’s largely because of them. And to me, that’s greatness.

The accolades, playing on the biggest stages, winning Grand Slams and stuff like that, are great. But greatness is more than that. And everyone eventually has to define it on their own terms.

When I first started my journey back, my goal was that I wanted AJ to come to practice, I wanted him to come to matches, because I wanted him to know that mommy’s out here grinding. I’m not leaving home for no reason, I’m not traveling for weeks on end, being away from him for nothing. So, it’s my hope that he can make that connection of understanding, seeing me out there working to be better. Trying to be better on the tennis court, trying to be a better mom, a better person, and a better friend, everything. And part of greatness, in my eyes, is embracing and embodying each process that is required to be the best version of you, accepting yourself and all the things that come with being who you are.

Adam Hagy/Getty

Every obstacle I’ve had to overcome to get to this point has given me the confidence to be able to say that I know I have what I need in my pocket. I know I’m where I need to be in order to compete and to win.

I’ve always felt like I had something to prove, and I don’t think that will ever go away. I’ve always been super competitive. I’ve always hated to lose. I’ve always hated being counted out. I’ve always been this way. 

And there might be a few things that are different about me now, but that part?? 

That part hasn’t changed one bit.