Sandra Harwitt, Special to 343d

Representing the U.S. in Fed Cup is personal for CoCo Vandeweghe


MINSK, Belarus -- It's no mystery to American CoCo Vandeweghe as to why she's made playing for her country in Fed Cup a top priority. In her mind, it's in her DNA. After all, her mother, Tauna, was an Olympic swimmer. The message was always loud and clear that playing for one's country is the ultimate in sports prestige.

"I saw what it meant as a kid to my mother, and when you see the passion that's built around one event for a country, I think the whole U.S. stops and watches the Olympics," Vandeweghe told ESPN. "To see what it meant for my mom and see her Team USA track suit and some old photos and things like that, it's really something quite cool.

"We got to go to Rio [the 2016 Olympics] together. I brought her along to kind of have the experience together. It's a big honor and even more of a privilege for me to have USA on my back."

Vandeweghe's role this season has been as the de facto team leader of the U.S. Fed Cup squad. Her results certainly confirm she's the link to success with the win of two singles points against Germany in the quarterfinals and the securing of three points (two singles and one doubles) against the Czech Republic in the semifinals.

"CoCo's been tremendous for us this year, not only on the tennis court but [also] off the court," said Kathy Rinaldi, U.S. Fed Cup captain. "She has a wonderful personality, fun-loving. She keeps things light. She loves playing for her country and these are really important weeks for her."

Despite her commanding performance, Vandeweghe is insistent that every round won can be credited to a united team effort. Her hope is that the U.S. squad can cement an 18th Fed Cup title, and first since 2000, against first-time finalist Belarus this weekend.

"It's a great honor to play alongside these girls through the whole year, and to kind of put the cherry on top, make it to the final, compete with them this coming weekend," she said, smiling at her comrades-in-arms, during Friday's official draw ceremony.

Newly minted at a career-high ranking of No. 10 this week, Vandeweghe has a dedication to Fed Cup that was a major drawing card for former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash when he agreed to become her coach this spring.

Cash, a dual-passport-carrying Australian-American citizen, took great pride in representing Australia in Davis Cup. In 1983 and 1986, he won the decisive match in Australia's 3-2 final victories over Sweden.

"I think she really embraces the Fed Cup, and that's one of the things that really excited me about her," said Cash, who was invited by the USTA to be an official part of the coaching staff during this final weekend in Minsk. "She told me she wanted a Fed Cup and wanted to play for her country, and I was the same when I played. I said, 'Let's build our schedule around the Grand Slams and the Fed Cup.'"

Although their alliance is closing in on just six months, Vandeweghe credits Cash with "making so many changes in my game."

Cash agrees, although he pinpoints her more reliable return of serve and movement as big improvements. He admits to being stunned as to how fast a learner she is on the court.

One essential ingredient he's managed to incorporate into her training is getting her to understand the importance of working with a sports psychologist. Famed British mental coach Don MacPerson has been brought on board their team.

"I had done some work with mental coaches but wasn't a big believer," Vandeweghe said. "This time around I went in there and said, 'Prove me wrong.' I actually find it is helping."

Cash's presentation for pushing mental coaching was based on her need to deal effectively with issues such as on-court fear and frustration during matches.

"The thing I kept hearing all the time is she has to get it mentally together," Cash said. "She was reluctant about a mental coach. I think she had to understand how it was going to benefit her. We're not trying to change her, just make things easier for her. We don't expect perfection, we expect progress."

There's no denying this has been the highlight season of Vandeweghe's career. She journeyed to her first two Grand Slam semifinals at the Australian and U.S. opens, and reached the finals of the Bank of the West Classic and WTA Elite Trophy events.

The run to the WTA Elite Trophy final last week delivered her to a first career top-10 ranking, of which she says, "I don't think it's sunk in yet."

While the end of the 2017 season is just a weekend away, there's still one goal waiting for realization. She is hoping to join all-time greats such as Billie Jean King, Evonne Goolagong, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Venus Williams and Serena Williams as a bona fide Fed Cup champion.

"It would be a great honor to be able to etch my name along with all the great champions that are on the Fed Cup trophy, and not only the American players, but worldwide," Vandeweghe said. "Hopefully, I'm able to do that this weekend."

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