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Taylor Townsend heads to Red Rock to build on great expecations

Once the top young player in the world, Taylor Townsend heads into the Red Rock Pro Open looking to solidify what’s been a strong 2016.

Townsend was the first American to finish a season as the top-ranked junior girls player in the world since 1982 four years ago. Her ranking at the start of 2016 was a little different, as the World Tennis Association had her placed 310th.

Four International Tennis Association final appearances and one victory this year has helped the 20-year-old bring her ranking up to 142nd before the Las Vegas tournament, which she is competing in for the third time.

“I’ve seen a lot of progress. So far, reflecting on it, it’s been great,” Townsend said. “I’m getting match tough.”

Townsend lost in the first round of the Red Rock Pro Open main draw in 2013 and 2015, and enters a competitive field this year.

The $50,000 Pro Circuit tournament, which takes place at the Red Rock Country Club, begins its main draw Tuesday. Players ranked No. 110 to No. 275 set to participate in the singles competition.

The top seed is Mandy Minella of Luxembourg, and the main draw also features Americans Jennifer Brady, Julia Boserup and Jessica Pegula, who are all ranked ahead of Townsend.

“We easily have one of the most competitive draws of the $50,000 challenges in the world,” tournament director Mike Copenhaver said.

Townsend used to follow her mother Sheila, who played tennis at Division II Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., to tournaments and first started playing when she was four-years-old.

Her mother’s friend Donald Young became her coach and helped the lefty develop her aggressive style at the net, which led to a girls’ singles title at the 2012 Australian Open. The junior Grand Slam victory helped lead to Townsend’s No. 1 ranking, and she also finished as the girls’ singles runner-up in Wimbledon in 2013.

“It’s difficult (having that ranking), because you don’t really realize what goes into all that,” Townsend said. “I think I dealt with it well. There is a lot of hype and a lot of different things that go into it.”

The ranking invited controversy when the United States Tennis Association asked Townsend to sit out the 2012 U.S. Open Junior tournament, citing concerns for her long-term health and development. She entered the tournament anyway and reached the quarterfinals, but the USTA’s decision cost her an opportunity to compete for a U.S. Open wild card.

Townsend said the experience taught her to deal with diversity better, which carried over to her pro career. She’s bounced back from her low ranking to start 2015, and her doubles season is also off to a strong start.

She’s made seven doubles finals at ITF events this year, with five victories with Las Vegas resident Asia Muhammad as her partner.

Now she’s hoping to build on her strong season by making it past the first round of Red Rock for the first time in her career.

“I mean I have high expectations for myself,” Townsend said. “I’m playing to be here until the end of the tournament and that’s what I’m working towards.”

LOCAL SPOTLIGHT

UNLV tennis players Carol Zi Yang and Aiwen Zhu were invited to compete in the singles qualifying of the Red Rock Pro Open.

Yang, a senior, lost her first match Sunday but Zhu, a sophomore, won and advanced to the second round of qualifying Monday. Zhu will donate any money she wins in the tournament to the G Alex Foundation, a Las Vegas charity that promotes health through tennis and wellness.

Yang would have done the same if she advanced.

Las Vegas resident Jovana Jaksic will compete in the tournament’s main draw.

Ben Gotz is a sports reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at bsgotz@reviewjournal.com or follow him on Twitter @BenSGotz

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