ROME -- At only 27 years old, Taylor Townsend seems to have lived many lives within the rapid-fire world of professional tennis. From being hailed as a junior prodigy to grappling with the mismanagement of her talent before emerging as a late bloomer, Townsend is now entering her newest era.
Just over a year after returning to the tour from maternity leave, she's embracing international travel for the first time with big dreams about making the sport more accessible.
Remarkably, this past month Townsend touched down in Madrid and Rome for the first time in her career. She initially broke into the Top 100 back in 2015, but a combination of wavering self-confidence and burnout from extended overseas stays prevented her from heading to the European red clay season. Instead, she found solace in her familiar territory of American ITF tournaments.
"For me and my energy levels, to be able to feel rejuvenated and excited going into the Slams, I felt it was better for me to just play the lower-level tournaments and get the matches," Townsend said at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia.
"That's what I needed at the time. But I wanted to challenge myself in a different way this time, trying to earn my way into these big tournaments. I've stayed in the States, and I know what that's like. But I didn't know what this was like, so I wanted to give myself that experience and that competition level.
"I definitely have a lot more confidence in my game, but I've also grown tremendously as a person, which helps me as a player. You can't separate the two. And the only way you can get that true confidence in your game is to be in this. You have to jump two feet in."
It's paid off so far. On court, Townsend came through qualifying and pulled off a hard-fought comeback win against Ysaline Bonaventure to set up a second-round match with No.3 seed Jessica Pegula. Townsend also cracked the doubles Top 10 thanks to a new and fruitful partnership with Leylah Fernandez.
Off court, she raves about the "picturesque" Foro Italico and describes her first taste of the Spanish and Italian cultures as "liberating."
Townsend is embracing the new challenges and pushing herself into new territory. In turn, she feels that it's time the sport she loves did the same.
Last year, Townsend guested on Cardi B's "Cardi Tries" TV show, coaching the rapper -- plus singer Normani -- as they attempted the sport for the first time.
The result was a highly entertaining 17 minutes in which Townsend managed to impart some tennis basics to an enthusiastic but chaotic Cardi and a slightly more natural Normani. In return, Townsend learned to imitate Cardi's signature on-record grunt.
"Cardi was a lot of fun," Townsend said. "But she was dying after hitting five shots. I was like, 'You guys have a minute to pick up all the balls,' and she had to lie down on the couch because she was out of breath. But Normani is super-athletic. She's done dance and gymnastics and volleyball.
"It was such a cool experience to blend tennis and pop culture."
More crossovers like this would benefit the sport, feels Townsend -- and she knows the right person for the job.
"Tennis isn't necessarily the most hip sport," she said. "It's very bougie, very uppity. It has a stigma of being Kentucky Derby-esque. Very polite, very proper. You gotta be quiet, you gotta be dressed up. Pop culture is the opposite of that.
"You need the right person and the right personality to blend those worlds. You need someone who understands both. You need somebody to show you can be here, but you can still be cool and edgy and fun. I think that's me!"
Townsend has her eye set on a few more celebrities. She praises former NFL player Chad Johnson for his "freaking amazing footwork -- I was borderline jealous," but adds that he needs to work on his temperament.
"I was watching a clip where he hit the ball, tried to come in, missed the shot and completely lost his s---. It shows you how frustrating this sport is."
She's also itching to fix former NBA player Dwyane Wade's backhand. "Who got him hitting the ball like that?" But her dream student is rather younger: Adonis, rapper Drake's 5-year-old son.
"He's mouldable," she said. "And I'd get to meet Drake. Two for one. I'm a phone call away!"