WATCH: Taylor Townsend joined Tennis Channel while on maternity leave after giving birth to her first child.

Advertising

Ahsha Rolle felt familiar pangs when she first heard Taylor Townsend share her body-shaming story in 2012. Years before the teenaged Townsend shined a light in her own struggle, the newly minted Director of Tennis at the New York Junior Tennis & Learning came up against her own brick wall as a surging American talent.

“I was ranked No. 82 in the world and made the third round of the US Open,” she recalled to TENNIS.com, “but some of the commentators were talking about my body, as well. I’d just played the best tennis of my career and then the USTA put me on a strict diet and extra fitness. I wondered, ‘Is this how things are supposed to go?’ It’s interesting how the whole thing comes about.

“Great athletes have different bodies and if you’re producing and winning, you’re obviously doing something right.”

Injuries ultimately kept her from replicating that 2007 peak, but Rolle is eager to instill her own life lessons on the next generation that she coaches at the Cary Leeds Tennis Center in the Bronx.

“Tennis taught me things like discipline, work ethic, resilience,” she said. “I would train six hours a day as a 13-year-old, so that creates a certain level of discipline in you, and then when you’re outside that, everything else seems to be a lot easier! It’s such a demanding life, and with the youth that I’m around, I try to instill the same thing. I know exactly what they’re going through and exactly what it feels like. I always tell them that anything worth having requires a little sacrifice and suffering, so if you suffer now, you can be good later on.”

Far from a cookie-cutter coach, Rolle tailors her approach to the student in front of her, employing a holistic method as a means of carving out the greatest possible athlete.

I think real growth in players occurs outside their comfort zones. I like to always push my players outside their comfort zones and then figure out how they’re able to handle that. Ahsha Rolle

“I’m not really big on lumping everyone into one style of play. I understand that players all have different personalities, body types, attributes and strengths. If I see that you’re likely going to be tall girl, growing to around 5’10” with a big forehand, I’m not aiming to make her into a counterpuncher and do all these movement drills! I’d have her doing weapon development and teaching her how to finish points at the net. My biggest strength as a coach is to teach game styles based on personalities and their own unique strengths.”

Uniqueness abounds in the current cadre of American players, particularly in those coming up the ranks like Coco Gauff and Hailey Baptiste, one in whom Rolle sees a great deal of herself.

“Once she simplifies the game, she’s going to be a top player. She has it all, but sometimes she complicates things because she is so talented and can do so much on the court. I felt the same when I was her age, when I was approaching a shot and wondering if I should hit a drop shot, a winner, an angle. When you have so many options things can get confusing, so if you can only do one or two things on the court, it can sometimes be better because you can only do what you know.”

Players like Gauff and Baptiste—in addition to the likes of the Williams sisters, Sloane Stephens, and Frances Tiafoe—are idols to the largely African American population Rolle works with at Cary Leeds. In a country where talented young children are often pulled into team sports, a combination of that elite representation and grassroots organizing may yet maximize a well of largely untapped potential.

“As a country, some of our best athletes in the world are African American. If you think about the NFL, and I remember this from growing up in Florida, they have those little kids training with former NFL players and instilling in them the kind of foundation and discipline. It’s why they’re able to produce so many NFL players out of that state every year. Tennis is kind of missing that, and my stance is that I can do so much with the position I’m in. For instance, we just had a commercial summer camp and we took in some of the kids from the local housing authorities across the street from the Center and gave them scholarships and sponsored them to come to the tennis camp so they can learn tennis.

Advertising

My biggest strength as a coach is to teach game styles based on personalities and their own unique strengths. Ahsha Rolle

“It was so cute because there was one little 7-year-old boy, and he’d always told his mother he wanted to be a professional football or basketball player, but after being exposed to the tennis, he now wants to become a professional tennis player. It’s so much about being able to provide kids with that opportunity is huge.”

Once they’re in the door, Rolle believes it’s incumbent on her and her fellow coaches to take a different tact from generations past and learn from athletes like Townsend and others like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, both of whom shared mental health struggles this summer.

“They’re the Gen Zs, right?” Rolle says. “They have all these connections on Instagram and everything is linked up to social media, so there can be more bullying that happens. They’re a different breed to work with altogether, but I do think that the more players like Naomi or Taylor share their stories, the better it will be for all of us to understand.

“We often host coaches education and training programs, to make sure that throughout the different sectors of our organization that all of our coaches are really good, or that they have the lesson plans and everything they need to be better.”

That said, a softer hand won’t blunt Rolle’s tough on-court approach, particularly with a nation waiting for its next crop of champions.

“I think real growth in players occurs outside their comfort zones. I like to always push my players outside their comfort zones and then figure out how they’re able to handle that.”