STARS & STRIPES GRAND SLAMMED
FLAG RIPPED OFF KIKI VANDEWEGHE AT OPEN
By ANDY SOLTIS
DIS-SERVICE: Coco Vandeweghe yesterday holds up the American flag patch a U.S. Open referee removed from her uniform at a match.
August 24, 2007 -- The tennis-prodigy niece of former Knick star Kiki Vandeweghe was stunned when a referee told her to remove her American flag patch just before her debut at the U.S. Open.
Coco Vandeweghe, 15, one of the most promising young American women players, was unnerved by the bizarre incident before her first-round qualifying match at the U.S. Tennis Center in Queens on Wednesday.
She was warming up for her match against Spain's Maria José Martinez Sanchez when an assistant referee pulled off Coco's Stars and Stripes patch, a U.S. Tennis Association official said yesterday.
"They profusely apologized for what happened later," said Coco's mother, Tauna.
Coco said she wears the patch regularly as a sign of patriotism. "USA all the way," she said.
"She's probably the biggest patriot in the world," said her mother.
Coco said she never had a problem before. When the referee told her something was wrong on her back, she thought she was complaining about "a bug" - only to discover it was the flag patch.
The USTA said the unidentified ref blew it.
She "misinterpreted our rule concerning commercial identification," said USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier.
"It was a mistake, and it will not happen again."
The USTA has a policy restricting the size and location of logos that players can wear during competitions like the U.S. Open, but it doesn't extend to the American flag.
Tauna Vandeweghe, a former swimming star on two U.S. Olympic teams, said the incident interrupted her daughter's warm-up, when she was already nervous.
"It threw us for a loop," she said.
Fans in the stands "all were very upset about it," she said.
At least one fan booed during the brief incident at the Grand Slam event.
Coco played the rain-delayed match, which she lost 2-6, 6-4, 5-7 after it resumed yesterday.
Her uncle Kiki played for the Knicks, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers, and was most recently general manager of the Nuggets.
Her grandfather Ernie Vandeweghe also played for the Knicks. Her grandmother Colleen Hutchins was Miss America in 1952.
Coco, who lives in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., has been called a possible successor to Venus and Serena Williams and even described as "the future of U.S. women's tennis."
Her 100-plus-mph serve helped her earn a wild card to compete for a qualifying spot in the U.S. Open, which begins Monday.