A trip to her first final was on the line, and the walls were closing in on Coco Vandeweghe. Slinging a few forehands several feet beyond the baseline, Vandeweghe looked every bit the erratic 120th-ranked lucky loser she was when the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford started.
Moments later, Vandeweghe was airborne above the alley, throttling a forehand winner down the line that elicited a raised eyebrow from semifinal opponent Yanina Wickmayer and a couple of gasps from the crowd.
That shot sequence in her three-set win over Wickmayer illustrated the growing pains -- and great gains -- Coco made on campus last week in becoming the first lucky loser in 7 1/2 years to reach a WTA final.
The 6-foot-1 Vandeweghe owns one of the most explosive first serves and hellacious kick serves in the game. She held a set point over Serena Williams before bowing 7-5, 6-3 in the final. She has great athleticism and power, but she can struggle to keep those blasts between the lines. Fresh off her first WTA final, Vandeweghe has risen to a career-high rank of No. 69, one spot behind Venus Williams. She plays an imposing game that impressed the Wimbledon winner.
"I think Coco has a really strong, solid game, and she's got a really good future," Serena said.
It's been four years since Vandeweghe won the U.S. Open junior girls title without surrendering a set and lost to then world No. 2 Jelena Jankovic in the U.S. Open main draw. She's been both erratic and explosive, but she's just 20 and springs from a DNA pool deep in sporting success: Mom Tauna was a swimmer who competed at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games; Uncle Kiki led UCLA to the 1980 NCAA title game and played in the NBA, as did grandfather Ernie. So just how high can Coco fly in the rankings, and what does she need to do to get there?
"I think Coco has it in her to be a top-10 player. She just needs to realize the sky is the limit," Vandeweghe's coach, Jan-Michael Gambill, who reached an ATP career-high rank of No. 14 in 2001, told us. "And she has to realize that it's not enough for me to think it or her family to think it or her fans to think it. Once she thinks it and believes it, she will progress even more. The goal at the start of the year was to reach the top 50, and she's nearly done that already despite injuries and other challenges, so all the hard work is starting to shine through."
Improved conditioning and experience help. When players are fitter, they play smarter, knowing they can endure a longer battle on court. Like some tall power players, Vandeweghe's shot selection, court coverage and footwork are still works in progress. She is sometimes handcuffed by the deep ball down the middle and needs to move her feet faster to step around that shot. When she is stretched wide on her forehand, she has a habit of ripping the lower-percentage running drive down the line rather than playing high, heavy topspin to give herself time and opportunity to recover to the center of the court. But it was that fearless ambition that helped her seal her semifinal win with that ballistic forehand.
"Coco is an amazing athlete. Sometimes almost too good in the sense that she can make those kind of shots," Gambill said. "We want her to remain aggressive, but we're also working on Coco being a little bit more of a workhorse, putting more balls in play and constructing points better."
That doesn't mean Coco will channel her inner Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and grind from behind the baseline, but she'd be better off pulling the trigger with greater consideration and taking reasonable risk.
"The misconception about Coco is people think she needs to end points right off the bat," Gambill says. "That's not true: She's gotten faster, her footwork is improved and she can play longer points. The key is we want her constructing points and not just trying to rip winners. You have to take risks as a power player; you need to take the best risk -- smart risk -- and Coco is learning to do that. She is fearless, and when she gets the right shot, you still want her to rip the ball from the right spots, and she's doing that."
Of course, Vandeweghe, who won 10 matches on grass in reaching the Nottingham ITF final and qualifying for Wimbledon last month, must do that a lot more consistently over the course of many more matches to make an impact during the U.S. Open Series.
Vandeweghe has the physical components for success. She can dictate with her forehand and showed soft hands and confident volleys. The question is: Does she have the desire and work ethic to develop the control and consistency necessary to continue her climb? If so, we may look back at her leap above the alley at Stanford as a launching pad for more success this summer.