CoCo finds her calling

Personality: A promising basketball player as a teen, Vandeweghe is now making statements on tennis courts

CoCo finds her calling
To hear CoCo Vandeweghe tell it, she just might have followed family tradition and become a basketball player if the girls on her team in Rancho Santa Fe, California, had been more understanding.

Her grandfather Ernie and her uncle Kiki played in the NBA. She had some talent, too, and a flair for the dramatic, sinking a game-winner from half court in eighth grade against La Jolla Country Day School.

“Banked it in,” she said last Tuesday afternoon when we spoke at the Australian Open.

But Vandeweghe said that as a ninth-grader, some of her basketball team-mates were resentful that she missed some practices to play tennis.

“I was a year younger than everyone as a freshman,” she said. “I was ahead in school, so I was a fresh 13-year-old, and having people kind of just not be their nice self that they normally were and not pass me the ball. And I was just like: ‘I don’t need this. I’ll go play tennis.’ And that was literally what it was.”

Basketball’s loss was American tennis’ gain, as the 6-foot-1 Vandeweghe has made clear with her booming serve and groundstrokes in Melbourne. She swept past top-ranked Angelique Kerber, 6-2, 6-3, in the fourth round, then overwhelmed the reigning French Open champion, Garbine Muguruza, 6-4, 6-0, in the quarterfinals, leaving Muguruza staring wistfully at some of Vandeweghe’s winners as they thundered past.

“Her power is paramount,” Vandeweghe’s coach, Craig Kardon, said.

Before arriving in Melbourne, Vandeweghe had won only three of her last 10 tour-level singles matches, dating to July. She played well in the exhibition Hopman Cup team event in Perth, Australia, in early January as she and Jack Sock lost in the final to France.

But in Melbourne, after rallying from being down a break of serve in the third set to defeat Eugenie Bouchard in the third round, Vandeweghe has displayed higher powers. She has guaranteed herself a spot in the top 20 after the tournament where she lost to Venus Williams in the semifinals.

Lindsay Davenport, the former No 1 and a fellow Californian who has known her since Vandeweghe was 16, called the demolition of Muguruza “the best match I’ve seen her play.”

“I just sat here just like, ‘This is amazing,'” Davenport said. “To play that high-risk tennis and to see it pay off in the biggest match of her life, it’s great to see it all come together.”

Vandeweghe broke a racquet in frustration — not an uncommon occurrence — during her second-round victory over Pauline Parmentier, but she has been much more even-tempered thereafter, with only the occasional soliloquy, smirk or eye roll (and a dab, after beating Kerber).

“I just think CoCo is being a lot more calm on the court,” Kardon, her coach, said. “I think she’s always had the game. The tennis is the easy part. Controlling her emotions and being positive has, I think, shown that there’s no boundaries.”

She also has given the impression that she is right where she belongs.

“I have self-belief,” Vandeweghe said. “I think it’s a part of me, of just how I like to conduct myself even if some people don’t like it. It’s who I am, and I put in the hard work to get here.”

She is correct that everyone does not like her swagger. In an interview on BBC Radio, the Czech player Andrea Hlavackova said she was “not a big fan of this kind of behavior, and it can get me fired up.”

But Davenport said there was nothing feigned or new about Vandeweghe’s approach.

“She’s always been like that, absolutely, always had it,” Davenport said. “She’s always had the ability to not take crap from anyone. She won’t, and she stands up for what she believes in. She does not care what anybody thinks about her, or their opinion.

“The Craig partnership has been great, because so many players are quick to find someone new or find a solution when things aren’t going well. They’ve weathered a lot of storms, and especially lately. But her belief in him and his belief in her have never wavered.”

Kardon, who said he persuaded Vandeweghe to hire him in Paris in 2015, is a veteran coach who got his first big break as part of Martina Navratilova’s coaching team when she won her ninth and final Wimbledon singles title in 1990.

“Champion,” Kardon said of Navratilova. “Champions do things a little bit differently, and I think CoCo has the qualities to become a champion. I’ve told her, but she has to work to get there. You can’t just hit one or two great shots and walk off the court and say I’m good. You’ve got to put it on paper. You’ve got to win titles, and I’m happy for her right now.”

Until now, her best results have come on grass. She won her two WTA Tour titles at s’Hertogenbosch in 2014 and 2016 and recorded her best Grand Slam result by reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2015.

Her serve, one of the fastest in the women’s game, is an even bigger weapon on grass, but it has been potent in the quicker-than-usual conditions on Melbourne Park’s hard courts, too. She has won 80 percent of her first-serve points, and after last Tuesday’s victory, she ranked second in the tournament behind Johanna Konta of Britain in the percentage of service games won, with 87 percent.

But it was the quality of her movement and ball-striking on the baseline — be it from a stable position or on the stretch — that helped make the difference against Kerber and Muguruza.

“Right now, everything is going great for CoCo,” Witt said. “But she can explode.”

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