COCO VANDEWEGHE: The Vandeweghe Of Life
Coco Vandeweghe is asked if she spends hours practicing her toss and technique and getting all of her 6-foot-1 frame into that serve.
Vandeweghe – you can just see it on the other end of the phone line – is rolling her eyes. Another adult has complicated things.
Just improve, baby!
Unlike Raiders owner Al Davis, Coco and her mother do not have a "Just Win" mentality. At this stage of her development Coco simply wants to "just improve" each time she is on the court. "I guess so, yeah, I practice," Vandeweghe says, then pauses.
"I can throw a spiral with a football, you know. I can throw a baseball, too; I don't throw like a girl. That's what it is, really. Arm swing and arm strength. Give a pitcher a tennis racquet, they can hit a serve."
Just like that, this 16-year-old has managed to strip some of the intensity, the urgency and the complication from a sport that can engulf a child prodigy. She wants to be No. 1 in the world in tennis; she just doesn't want to get there in a hurry like everyone else, or get there the same way.
Her motto, and her mother Tauna's motto, is "just improve." It is not "just win."
So far this year, she is doing both.
Vandeweghe garnered notice March 8 when she won 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 over France's Aravane Rezai, the top seed in the Las Vegas Open and the No. 53 player in the world. Vandeweghe won a second-round match before losing in the third round to Meng Yuan.
"It was kind of a relief, a great feeling when I won that match," Vandeweghe said. "Everyone kept telling me I was getting better."
Vandeweghe, who is a junior, would be listed as the No. 1 recruit in high school tennis for the class of 2009 – but that's if she was going to go to college to play tennis. Right now, she is interested in getting better and eventually bearing down on a high world ranking by playing her way up the charts out of her home base in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
"She is a very gifted athlete. She has a big game and has a big serve and a very good overall game," said Jean Nachand, the director of women's tennis for the USTA's Player Development staff. "She has gone toe to toe with a lot of players.
"She can be one of the best. I have great confidence in her."
Vandeweghe is good enough now that sponsors hover around Coco and her mother, who wait on the contracts and just play.
Not grabbing at deals isn't the only thing different about Coco's rise in junior tennis. She didn't start playing until she was 11. She was a basketball player, which was fitting considering her uncle, Kiki, played college basketball at UCLA and was an NBA All-Star with the Denver Nuggets before becoming GM of the Nuggets and, later, a sought-after shooting coach.
Tauna is hardly upset her daughter did not get swept along by the swirl of the junior circuit. The rankings are fiercely competitive, she said, and there have been instances of cheating and sniping that suck the fun out of a match.
She can be one of the best. I have great confidence in her.
"There's way too much pressure in juniors. The parents in juniors can be overbearing," Tauna said. "There is cheating and this attitude that you have got to win. We didn't immerse ourselves in it; we did it when it was fun and convenient."
Coco had her first negative experience with the environment on the junior circuit when a father of a player Coco once practiced with cussed her out.
"I beat his daughter, she accused me of cheating and complained to her dad about me, and he started cussing at me," Coco said.
"I was 12."
Coco plays in the so-called "opportunity" tournaments in the San Diego area and often has been matched against skilled players in their 20s and 30s. There was a maturity on the other side of the net she could borrow from, not the antics of an overindulged teenager.
The Vandeweghes played an appropriate amount of junior tournaments and did not skip a lot of steps trying to get to the pro ranks, but it has been apparent that Coco could move forward faster because of her big game.
Vandweghe is ranked No. 496 in the WTA rankings, and there is no doubt she will climb considerably higher. Her size and athletic ability shrink her half of the court, and she can play an all-around game.
The serve is a weapon, but Nachand said Vandeweghe uses it wisely. "I was in Indian Wells at a tournament and I saw her put in a serve at 117 on set point in a tie-break," Nachand said. "And she has the capability of slowing it down and pulling it wide and kicking it. She has a lot of options, and she is very smart about using those options. She doesn't just bang the serve in."
Nachand said Vandeweghe has more than athletic ability; she has gifts that come with growing up in a successful sports family. "I think coming from an athletic, competitive, in-sports family, there is an intangible there that has allowed her to feel comfortable to where she is," Nachand said.
Where she is now is not where Vandeweghe wants to be a year from now. Her competitiveness is one of those intangibles she matches with skill.
"I think it's just determination of being the best at something and being as good as you can possibly be at a sport," Coco said. "You don't want to go at something half-trying. You want to go at it as hard as you can. That's what I do.
"I'm very competitive. It comes from my family and being a younger sibling; I wanted to be the tougher one."