TENNIS: Life on the WTA Tour is a grind, but Vandeweghe still has big ambition
By BRIAN HIRO firstname.lastname@example.org | Posted: Monday, July 4, 2011 6:00 am
CoCo Vandeweghe has never been so happy to fly coach.
During a changeover in Atlanta on her recent flight back from London, where she played in her first Wimbledon to cap a two-month excursion through Europe, the 19-year-old tennis pro from Rancho Santa Fe retreated from the first-class section to find a row of three seats unoccupied. Bone-weary from life on the road, Vandeweghe lied down and fell dead asleep.
She landed after midnight on June 24 and, two days later, she was still recovering ---- from the jet lag and the cumulative effect of excessive travel.
"When I was told about the whole European swing being a grind," Vandeweghe said, "it was definitely not underestimated in any sense of the word."
When casual American tennis fans think of the sport as it exists across the pond, they think of the glamour and prestige of the French Open and Wimbledon. But there's more to it than that. Vandeweghe, for example, left San Diego on April 24 ---- Easter Sunday. In order, she then played clay-court tournaments in Madrid, Rome and Brussels leading up to Roland Garros in Paris, and grass tournaments in Birmingham (England), Holland and Eastbourne (England) leading up to Wimbledon.
Of course, it didn't help Vandeweghe's experience that she lost either in qualifying or in the first round of seven of the eight events, causing her world ranking to slide from a career high of 89th achieved in mid-April down to 102nd. The overall demands of the trip, and the disappointing results on it, prompted Tauna Vandeweghe to have a heart-to-heart with her daughter when she returned from the longest stretch away from home of her young life.
"I said, 'CoCo, you know, this isn't worth it. This is too much stress. Why don't you take some time off? Let's do something else' " Tauna Vandeweghe said. "I probably say this five or six times a year, and every time I get the same comment: 'Are you crazy? I love this. I'm gonna be the best.' "
In the continuing education of CoCo Vandeweghe, who was pegged as the next U.S. female tennis star as early as 2008, this is perhaps the most important lesson ---- that even after absorbing the hard knocks of the WTA Tour, both on and off the court, she still has a burning desire to play tennis for a living, to pursue her audacious childhood ambition to be the greatest in the world.
"Growing up, I saw the Grand Slams on TV and would go to the La Costa tournament. I figured that was the pro tour," Vandeweghe said. "I didn't know about the sacrifices you have to make, where you've dedicated yourself to a lifestyle and that is what you want to do. But I definitely think it's worth it, what I've done to get to the point where I am."
Though she doesn't turn 20 until December, Vandeweghe is years behind many of her tour rivals when it comes to tennis seasoning. The daughter of a U.S. Olympian in swimming and volleyball and the niece of former NBA standout Kiki Vandeweghe, the 6-foot-1 CoCo played multiple team sports as a kid and didn't so much as pick up a racket until she was 11. She even logged a year of high school tennis at La Costa Canyon, virtually unheard of for world-class players.
Vandeweghe, however, proved to be a remarkably quick study, in addition to being blessed with tremendous athletic genes. By 16, she burst on to the national scene by winning the U.S. Open juniors tournament, and last summer she won five straight matches ---- including an upset of world top-10 Vera Zvonareva ---- to reach the quarterfinals of the hometown Mercury Insurance Open.
Now comes the really
hard part. It's one thing to ascend from 746th in the world to 89th, as Vandeweghe did between the end of 2007 and April of this year. It's quite another to crack the truly rarefied air of the top 50, to say nothing of the top 10.
"Once you get to the real tour, there are no easy matches," she said. "All these girls are gunning for the same spot and the next position in the draw."
Last November's Fed Cup provided an illustration of how highly Vandeweghe is regarded in the U.S. tennis community, and yet how far she still must go to reach her intended station. In the final against Italy at San Diego's Valley View Casino Center, an American team without the injured Venus and Serena Williams turned twice to Vandeweghe, and she lost both matches in straight sets as the hosts fell 3-1 in the best-of-five series.
"It was a great honor to play for my country," Vandeweghe said. "The sort of pressure that comes along with it was a heck of an experience that I wouldn't trade for anything. But I wish I could have won a match. I let down my team and my country, so that feeling bugged for me a while. It wasn't the easiest thing to deal with."
Vandeweghe still technically lives at home in Rancho Santa Fe with her mother, stepfather and two young siblings, although she also has a place in Newport Beach ---- "It's basically a storage room," she said ---- to be closer to one of her two coaches, Robert Van't Hof of the Palisades Tennis Club.
Her other coach ---- the one she travels to tournaments with ---- is Tom Gullikson, a former U.S. Davis Cup captain and one of the founding members of the U.S. Tennis Association player development program, through which he developed such stars as Jennifer Capriati, Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish. The problem is that Gullikson is based in Palm Coast, Fla., near the USTA training center in Boca Raton, so Vandeweghe often has to fly across the country for training sessions.
Add it to the list of inconveniences Vandeweghe is willing to put up with to achieve her goals. The primary objectives for the rest of this season are to improve her world ranking to the point that she can enter more main draws of tournaments (as opposed to having to go through qualifying) and to curb the inconsistency that causes her to lose matches to players whom she outclasses physically.
"I want to get my bad tennis a lot closer to my good tennis, having that margin a lot closer than what it is right now," Vandeweghe said. "That's what the best players do, but I'm encouraged with how I've been doing. I've had some great tournaments, and I've also taken my lumps. This European tour was not the easiest, but you have to go with it. I have to learn from my mistakes and improve from there."
So she'll play a week of World Team Tennis for the colorfully named Boston Lobsters from July 5-13, and she'll play in a tournament at Stanford in late July, and she'll return to try to recapture some magic at the La Costa event in early August. Beyond that lies her fifth U.S. Open and many more trips she has yet to schedule.
The road is long and hard. The prize ---- No. 1 in the world ---- is great.
CoCo Vandeweghe forges on.