Getting to know: 2008 Us Open JR Champion CoCo Vandeweghe
TENNIS: Catch a rising star: Soon the tennis world could be cuckoo for Rancho Santa Fe's CoCo Vandeweghe
On one side of the court was the past of American women's tennis. On the other side was, quite possibly, its future.
The scene was the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami last March, and Lindsay Davenport was engaged in a hitting session with CoCo Vandeweghe ---- at 16, exactly half Davenport's age ---- on the day before Vandeweghe's debut in the main draw of a professional tournament. After the two players exchanged concussive groundstrokes and thunderous serves for the better part of an hour, Davenport ---- duly impressed by a young prodigy who reminded her of a teenage version of herself ---- approached the Rancho Santa Fe resident and asked who her coach was.
A sheepish Vandeweghe was forced to admit that, at the moment, she didn't have one. Even worse, unable to find a hitting partner in another practice session leading up to the tournament, she had little choice but to warm up with her 40-something mother ---- who was wearing sandals.
"I had blisters on my feet for a week," said Tauna Vandeweghe, the mom in question. "That was the first wake-up call for us. I said to myself: 'This is ridiculous. These other girls have coaches, nutritionists, everything, and my daughter is being warmed up by an old lady in flip-flops.' "
Flash forward six months, to a picture-perfect Southern California morning soon after Vandeweghe's breakthrough title at the U.S. Open junior tournament. On one side of a practice court at the Palisades Tennis Club in Newport Beach is Vandeweghe, sweat glistening and blonde ponytail bobbing as she races back and forth along the baseline. On the other side isn't Mom, but rather two men. One of them is Robert Van't Hof, who coached Davenport for a decade and oversaw her ascent to becoming the No. 1 player in the world and a three-time Grand Slam champion. The other is Adam Peterson, Davenport's coach intermittently since 2003.
Six days a week, Vandeweghe makes the 90-minute drive north to Orange County for a pair of practices ---- call them two-a-days ---- with her new coaches lasting up to two hours each. Three days a week, she forgoes the afternoon session for a conditioning workout with her personal trainer at Velocity Sports Performance in Carlsbad.
And always just a phone call, or text message, away is her agent, who also happens to represent Maria Sharapova, the reigning diva of women's tennis.
The daughter of a U.S. Olympian in two different sports and the niece of former NBA star Kiki Vandeweghe, CoCo ---- who stands a towering 6 feet, 1 inch ---- has long been regarded as an athletic prospect of exceptional raw material. Only recently, though, has she truly and completely committed herself to tennis, to fulfilling an ambition she first expressed when she was 12 years old and had been whacking the fuzzy yellow ball for only a year.
"My goal was to be No. 1 in the world," CoCo recalled recently. "That's what I wanted to do, and that's still what I want to do."
It remains an outrageously audacious objective for a girl who just got her driver's license, but Vandeweghe at least appears to be solidly on the right track. Last month in New York, she breezed through six matches without dropping a set to become the first American in 13 years to win the U.S. Open girls championship, the junior portion of the prestigious Grand Slam tournament.
That performance followed a respectable showing in the U.S. Open's main draw, in which ---- as a wild card entrant ---- she played her first match against then-world No. 2 Jelena Jankovic, in Arthur Ashe Stadium, at night, on national television. Faced with swirling wind and a raucous crowd in addition to a formidable foe, Vandeweghe lost 6-3, 6-1 ---- but not before gaining a host of new fans with her powerful game and her affable on-court demeanor.
"That's a tough situation to be in, and I thought she handled it well," said Van't Hof, who attended the match along with much of Vandeweghe's family, including Kiki, now the general manager of the New Jersey Nets. "She wasn't real nervous. I would have been petrified."
Said Vandeweghe, by way of explanation: "It was weird because, warming up, there was music going and people talking ---- you can't hear the ball. I've never really experienced that. It's a little overwhelming being on center court. But I'm pretty pleased with how I played."
That Vandeweghe competed fiercely, yet ultimately captured only four games from Jankovic ---- who went on to lose to Serena Williams in the women's final ---- is simultaneously a testament to her abundant physical gifts and a sign of her extreme inexperience on the big stage.
By 17, the age Vandeweghe turns in December, Sharapova had already won Wimbledon and ascended to No. 4 in the world. Vandeweghe this year played junior Wimbledon for the first time (she lost in the first round) and owns a WTA Tour ranking of No. 493. Of course, by age 7, Sharapova already had emigrated from Russia and was training at the elite Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida. At 7, Vandeweghe was playing multiple sports casually and was still four years away from picking up her first racket.
Tauna Vandeweghe never wanted to be a tennis mom who pushes and prods her daughter to the point of burnout.
"We've been trying to do it half-heartedly," Tauna said of CoCo's fledgling tennis career. "I didn't want to do it full-time because it's a tremendous amount of stress. She's the one who wanted to do it. I held her back for a while. But you don't have a big window in sports. It seemed like it was the right time."
The time is right, so Team Vandeweghe is striking. The first member to sign on was the agent, Max Eisenbud, who works for the powerhouse International Management Group out of Miami. Eisenbud first spotted Vandeweghe at the Orange Bowl junior tournament in his hometown last December, and he couldn't believe she was unsigned. What he didn't know is that Tauna had been shooing potential agents away from CoCo since she was 12.
"The first thing that drew me was her last name. I figured there was going to be some good athleticism there," said Eisenbud, who grew up watching Kiki play basketball. "From the first few games, I knew I wanted to sign her. I saw so much raw talent. She was doing things not many 16-year-olds can do."
After a thorough vetting, Tauna hired Eisenbud in the spring. One of his first tasks was to arrange for CoCo to hit with Davenport in Miami. The two players, both tall Southern Californians without a shred of pretense, immediately hit it off and have remained friendly since.
Upon hearing that Vandeweghe didn't have a coach ---- she parted from her original one, Rancho Santa Fe's Guy Fritz, earlier this year ---- Davenport recommended Van't Hof. A former pro player, Van't Hof began training Vandeweghe at his home club in Newport Beach while Eisenbud lined up trips to Moscow for the Fed Cup (Vandeweghe accompanied the U.S. team but didn't compete) and to London for junior Wimbledon.
But the real fruits of the support system's labor became evident at the U.S. Open, that whirlwind fortnight during which Vandeweghe put all of her practice into practice. Strongly tested in her first junior match, she survived, then proceeded to lay waste to the field, dispatching Venezuela's Gabriela Paz Franco 7-6 (3), 6-1 in the final. Her reward was an infusion of confidence and a Tiffany crystal trophy that's now perched on the bureau in her bedroom.
"During the matches in juniors, a light bulb went on and what I've been working on kind of fell into place," Vandeweghe said. "I felt really in touch with my game."
Van't Hof isn't a traveling coach anymore, so Vandeweghe rounded out her team by adding Peterson, a former All-American player at USC who will be her road companion at tournaments. Peterson was coaching Davenport as recently as the U.S. Open last month, but Davenport told Peterson after the tournament that she needed time to decide whether to continue playing or retire.
"It's very fun for me to work with someone of CoCo's ability and age," Peterson said. "I feel like I can bring her insight into the top players and be part of her rise to the top level. I think the sky is the limit for her."
Indeed, at a September practice in Newport Beach, it's evident that the two coaches understand that they've been entrusted with a rare piece of clay to mold. A sizable portion of the session is devoted to Vandeweghe's slice backhand, which Van't Hof is trying to develop as a change of pace from her normal backhand, an overpowering stroke that Vandeweghe considers her best. All along, Van't Hof peppers his student with positive reinforcement:
"Good, way to lean in, good angle."
After practicing her slices, Vandeweghe sits down with a towel and a bottle of vitamin water, listening to Van't Hof's assessment: "The more you do it, the better you'll get at it. But you're real close. You have that shot. A lot of girls can't let go with the other hand."
Vandeweghe possesses remarkable power for a girl her age ---- she hits groundstrokes as violently as top tour players, and her serve has been timed at 120 mph ---- but Van't Hof constantly emphasizes that there's more to tennis than pounding the ball.
"People don't like to play her because she hits the ball so hard," Van't Hof said. "If she's playing well, you're in trouble. But every shot doesn't have to be hard. She makes a lot of errors, and she has to slowly cut down on the errors."
Given her bloodlines, Vandeweghe was almost destined to be an athletic marvel. Her mother won a silver medal in swimming at the 1976 Olympics, then came back eight years later and claimed another silver in volleyball. Kiki was a star forward at UCLA and averaged almost 20 points in a 13-year NBA career than ended in 1993, with his best seasons coming with the Denver Nuggets. CoCo's grandfather, Ernie Vandeweghe, played for the New York Knicks in the 1950s.
At one time or another, CoCo tried all of her relatives' sports. She jokes that she can "barely" swim and that she didn't like volleyball because "I could only hit the ball once and then I had to pass it."
"That wasn't too much fun," she said with a smile.
A natural left-hander, CoCo learned to play tennis right-handed, but she still goes to the left in other sports, including golf ("She hits the ball a ton," Tauna bragged). She even tried wrestling when she was 5 and the family lived in Long Island, before moving to the San Diego area.
"She went to the junior championships for Long Island and won," Tauna said. "She made a couple of boys cry."
CoCo's best sport was basketball until her older brother, Beau (now a 6-5 freshman volleyball player at Pepperdine), introduced her to tennis at age 11. She liked it immediately, although it took her a while to find her footing against girls who had been playing for more than half their young lives.
"I definitely struggled in the juniors in the beginning," CoCo said. "There were a couple of girls who used to kick my butt in (the 12 and 14 age division), but when I started getting better, I started beating them."
Deviating from the normal route taken by highly skilled junior players, Vandeweghe enrolled at La Costa Canyon High as a freshman in 2005 and signed up for the tennis team. She quickly passed the entrenched upperclassmen to become the Mavericks' top player and might have contended for the CIF San Diego Section title if not for a paperwork error that rendered her ineligible.
She liked her high school coach, Marc Sandknop, and intended to play for him as a sophomore as well. But she was given an opportunity that she couldn't pass up: to immerse herself in tennis for two months at a Palm Springs academy run by Jose Higueras, a renowned instructor who has coached Pete Sampras, Michael Chang and Jim Courier, and is currently with Roger Federer.
Vandeweghe fell so far behind in her schoolwork that LCC forced her to withdraw.
"We all knew this was a steppingstone for her," Sandknop said. "I thought I'd have her for two seasons, three tops."
Said Vandeweghe: "I didn't really do high school. But it wasn't a sacrifice to leave. I was fine with it."
Vandeweghe is now home-schooled, taking junior- and senior-level courses through a Brigham Young online program, supplemented by independent study classes at the Grauer School in Encinitas. She socializes with friends she has retained from her time at LCC, but she mostly hangs with her family, which also includes stepfather Michael O'Shea (a writer for Parade magazine); younger siblings Michael (nicknamed "Crash"), 6, and Honnie, 5; and her grandparents, who live with the family in Rancho Santa Fe.
Vandeweghe maintained a 3.7 grade-point average at LCC, and she comes across in interviews as bright, personable and level-headed. Following the recent practice in Orange County, she ran into a 14-year-old girl who appeared starstruck while congratulating Vandeweghe on her U.S. Open title. Vandeweghe shrugged and turned the compliment around, praising the girl for winning a local junior tournament.
In New York last month, Tauna was more amazed by her daughter's behavior off the court than her play on it.
"When she first started tennis, I took her to the Acura Classic (former WTA event at the La Costa Resort and Spa), and some players were so rude to her," Tauna said. "I told her to always remember this and never make people feel this way.
"At the Open, I had so many parents come up and say, 'She was so nice to my daughter.' I'm so proud of how she acted. She had a grace about her. That's probably the proudest I've been of her."
Is there room at the top of the WTA circuit for a nice girl who's several years behind many of her tennis peers in the developmental curve? For inspiration, Vandeweghe need look no further than Davenport, who grew up in a stable environment without overbearing tennis parents and turned pro at the same age as Vandeweghe. Five years later, at 22, she reigned atop the world rankings.
"It's a flattering comparison, and their games are somewhat similar," Van't Hof said. "But you still have to go out and win."
To that end, Vandeweghe is gradually ramping up her tournament schedule in accordance with the WTA's age eligibility rule. She can play in as many as three more International Tennis Federation challenger events before her 17th birthday on Dec. 6, then a maximum of 17 pro tournaments in the year before she turns 18. After that, she can play an unlimited pro slate.
"I told her when I signed her that it was going to take three-to-four years to get to where she wants to go," Eisenbud said. "Everyone needs to be patient with her. She needs a lot of experience, and we're going to get her a lot of experience."
Vandeweghe has the agent. She has the coaches. She has the fitness trainer. She has the loving and supportive family. She has the pedigree.
Now, it seems, the only thing standing between CoCo Vandeweghe and that pie-in-the-sky childhood dream ---- No. 1 in the world ---- is CoCo herself.
"I never would have put her in the position she is now if I didn't think she could do it," Tauna Vandeweghe said. "Now it's up to her."