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Why CoCo Vandeweghe Could Finally Emerge As America's Next Star

CoCo Vandeweghe looked like she belonged in the thick of tennis' elite during her run to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. She heads into a first-round match against Sloane Stephens at the US Open with a 1-4 record since. Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

She was sure she would lose. Not just lose, but embarrass herself. CoCo Vandeweghe had never even set foot on Wimbledon's Centre Court before this moment. Never slipped in after hours to pluck a strand of the holy grass that once had softened the steps of Graf and Borg, deadened the volleys of Navratilova and McEnroe, spun the serves of Serena and Sampras. She had never paused to breathe in the history of the grandest cathedral in tennis, never strolled to the baseline and imagined herself serving for a title with the royals looking on from their exclusive box.

And now, here she was on this July afternoon, exchanging practice strokes before her quarterfinal match, the deepest Vandeweghe had ever advanced in a Grand Slam. Across the net stood Maria Sharapova, she of the No. 4 world ranking, career Grand Slam and endorsement empire. This was Sharapova's fifth trip to the Wimbledon quarters, a tournament she'd won in 2004. The 23-year-old Vandeweghe, by contrast, couldn't stop gazing at the royal box. She began to worry that she would whiff on an overhead. "I was in awe of the situation," Vandeweghe says.

And then, mercifully, the first raindrops fell.

Tournament officials whisked the players off the court and led Vandeweghe to a small room with a training table. The only other occupant was a woman -- Vandeweghe guessed she was an office worker -- who pecked away at a keyboard. Muffled chatter from spectators seeped through the ceiling, and a walkie-talkie periodically crackled with an update on the passing storm. Otherwise, all was quiet.

Vandeweghe tried to calm her nerves by studying a pair of black-and-white photos depicting an earlier generation of lawn tennis. The women held wooden rackets and wore white dresses and oversize hats. When she grew bored, Vandeweghe climbed onto the training table, rolled onto her back and drew her knees up toward her waist. She placed a towel over her eyes to obstruct the fluorescent bulbs above -- since she was a child, she'd been told that light tires the eyes. Deliberately, she focused on each deep breath: Inhale. Exhale. Pause. Repeat. Vandeweghe was once again locked in a duel with her toughest opponent. In these few, tranquil moments before she'd return to the court, she had to find a way to get past herself.

***

Vandeweghe's game has intrigued the tennis cognoscenti since she won the girls' US Open at age 17 in 2008. She has "easy power," as three-time Grand Slam winner Tracy Austin calls it, and those blistering groundstrokes and a massive serve helped place her on the short list of women expected to succeed Serena Williams as the face of American tennis.

So did her famous name. Her uncle is Kiki Vandeweghe, the former NBA star who averaged nearly 20 points per game over a 13-year career. Her grandfather, Ernie Vandeweghe, played six seasons for the Knicks and his wife, Colleen Kay Hutchins, was Miss America 1952. Mom Tauna -- Ernie's daughter -- was an Olympian in both swimming and volleyball. So it's hardly surprising that CoCo was blessed with a 6-foot-1 frame held together by broad shoulders and powerful legs, or with quickness and coordination that helped her excel in every sport she dabbled in, from basketball to soccer to wrestling.

But Vandeweghe's professional results have yet to match her considerable potential. She has won just one WTA tournament and has never ranked higher than 32nd in the world. Too often, obstacles have wedged their way between Vandeweghe and success, including those with tentacles extending deep into her past. Still, she enters the US Open accompanied by the greatest expectations of her career in the city where she was born -- and where she always dreaded returning.

Her coach, Craig Kardon, says she could win Wimbledon one day. Austin believes Vandeweghe could be a top-15 player. Those visions are fueled in part by that quarterfinal run at Wimbledon in which she toppled three seeded players, then nearly added Sharapova to her list of victims. That match represented more than just Vandeweghe at her peak, though. It was her career in microcosm.

Sharapova owns some of the heaviest groundstrokes on tour, yet Vandeweghe "was hitting her off the court at times," Kardon says. At times. Not all the time. That's how it goes for Vandeweghe. She might crush a pair of winners from deep on the baseline, then spray the next three shots wide and long. When she gets nervous, she tends to over-hit, and that goes for her serve as well: Vandeweghe has cranked one as high as 124 mph and she wins 71.2 percent of points on her first serve, which ranks fifth on tour. But she'll often attempt to ace her opponent when a heavy topspin serve would be a smarter option -- her preferred choice leads to too many second serves and double faults.

Vandeweghe's struggles with shot selection can be compounded by a lack of focus. That issue, too, was evident against Sharapova. Serving down 1-2, 15-30, Vandeweghe tossed the ball high and slightly behind her head, preparing to kick a serve wide. Instead, she caught her toss. She paused, bounced the ball three times, restarted her motion, then stopped again. After eventually serving and winning the point, Vandeweghe strode toward the chair umpire, her blonde ponytail swaying gently over the back of her white visor. Sharapova was moving during her service motion, Vandeweghe argued, a practice that is largely verboten. But the umpire declined to intervene. A distracted Vandeweghe would lose that game and eventually drop the first set, 6-3.

Sharapova's subtle movement continued to bother Vandeweghe into the middle of the second set, when she locked eyes with the chair umpire during a changeover. "As I start to go, she's moving," Vandeweghe said, pointing at the umpire. Vandeweghe's right leg shook beneath the towel draped over her lap. "I'm telling you that. That's all I have to say about it. If you don't say something, I can say something. It's no problem."

No one who witnessed the exchange was surprised. Vandeweghe is as known as much for her mouth as her serve. She's had more than one fiery exchange with an opponent and tends to answer questions without a filter. Just days earlier, she'd found herself trending on Twitter for comments she made about Carmelo Anthony, of all people. A reporter from New York had asked Vandeweghe about the Knicks, her favorite team, and she admitted that she found Anthony to be "a bit soft." Her uncle Kiki, of course, had drafted Anthony when he was the general manager of the Nuggets and -- voila! -- controversy.

She is frequently portrayed as brash and unafraid, but that is a misread. That perspective confuses arrogance with simple honesty. It mistakes her powerful groundstrokes for boldness, when in reality, she just lacks a finesse component to complement them. Vandeweghe may seem to enjoy the limelight, but she's also a grown version of the child who would hide behind her mother's leg when introduced to somebody new.

Against Sharapova, she embraced the stage and turned her anger and frustration into competitive energy. With Sharapova serving for the match at 5-4, Vandeweghe placed a nifty crosscourt forehand out of the Russian's reach to tie the set at 5-5. She flapped her arms toward the sky, urging the crowd onward, and they adopted her cause. Three games later, Vandeweghe crushed a crosscourt backhand into the far right corner to take the set. The fans erupted, with Vandeweghe again operating as their conductor. "The crowd really got behind me in the second set," Vandeweghe would say later. "I felt I needed it. I needed something that was going to push me over the edge."

But momentum has always been a fickle character in Vandeweghe's career. Neither her game nor her mental approach has been steady enough to sustain positive results. And as quickly as she seized control against Sharapova, she lost it.

Serving at 2-3 to try to even the third set, Vandeweghe hit the frame of her racket on consecutive shots, handing Sharapova a critical break. They were mistakes that top-10 players simply don't make, and they were all Sharapova needed to close out the match, 6-2. Vandeweghe would exit the court to a standing ovation, the crowd sensing that this wouldn't be her last appearance on this stage. But Vandeweghe couldn't help but lament an opportunity lost, a result that might have been different if not for a handful of errors that should be easily correctible.

If only it were that simple.

***

"Tauna, come watch this!"

Tauna Vandeweghe entered the living room of her parents' home in Palm Springs, California, to find her father, Ernie, seated on the floor alongside her 3-year-old daughter, CoCo.

"CoCo!" he called, and then tossed a tennis ball to his granddaughter. She caught it, then threw it back with her right hand. Next, he lobbed it to the other side of CoCo's body. She snagged it with her left hand and fired it back with that same arm.

"Do you have any idea what you have here?" Ernie asked his daughter.

A shocked Tauna could merely respond, "Someone who loves Oreos?"

CoCo was ambidextrous. She had inherited the Vandeweghe athletic genes. And soon she would feel the weight of the expectations that came with the Vandeweghe name.

Born Colleen Hutchins Mullarkey in New York City, CoCo was a toddler when her parents divorced. At age 5 she, Tauna and her brother Beau -- older by a year -- moved across the country to Rancho Santa Fe, California. There, she started going by Vandeweghe, a change she made official as a teenager.

To help Tauna raise her kids, Ernie and Colleen -- CoCo's namesake -- moved in, too. And an athletic lab was rekindled. After playing for the Knicks, Ernie became a respected pediatrician and developed a knack for discovering and refining athletic talent in kids. His good friend John Wooden would stop by to seek his counsel; Bill Walton would bring his own, large chair when he'd visit, forgetting that the Vandweghes also had furniture built for a basketball player. All four of Ernie's children became accomplished athletes, and with Tauna by his side, he dusted off his old tools for his grandchildren. Ernie hung colored tennis balls from a door, and CoCo would strike them on command to improve her hand-eye coordination. The kids joined a tap-dance class to sharpen their footwork. And, of course, Ernie coached their basketball teams.

First and foremost, though, Ernie was a doting grandfather. CoCo called him "Pal," and the name was apt. After CoCo was supposed to have gone to sleep, Pal and Colleen would invite her into their bed to munch on cookies. When CoCo was in third grade, Pal let her drive his Lincoln to school; she sat on the elevated middle seat to work the pedals and control the wheel.

"My grandfather was like the yin to my mom's yang," CoCo says. "My dad wasn't around, so my grandfather was my father. He was very calm and quiet, really consoled me a lot, where my mother was kind of the driving force."

That's putting it mildly. Tauna is 6-foot-2 "and wears it like she's 6-6," said CoCo, chuckling. She and Ernie had similar goals for CoCo. But while Pal would deliver his message with the twinkle of an eye that only a grandfather can conjure, Tauna's methods were a bit more direct. "I'm extremely demanding on myself," Tauna says. "It's got to be done, it's got to be done right, it's got to be done yesterday and four other things have to be done at the same time."

CoCo was an easygoing child, but shame on anyone who mistook that trait for weakness. That was usually Beau. "He was always trying to push her buttons," Tauna said. "She'd tolerate it, tolerate it and then finally my father would say, 'Beau, you'd better back off, because CoCo's eyes are turning red.' And then Beau would run."

At times, though, the strong wills of mother and daughter would clash, particularly when it came to CoCo's athletics. By sixth grade, CoCo was already starting for the eighth-grade basketball team. But even though Tauna remains convinced that her daughter could have played professionally, she decided that tennis offered better opportunities. "She told me straight up, 'I don't like you playing basketball," CoCo says.

So Tauna would "forget" to show up to take her to basketball games, while tennis tournaments became extended family vacations -- "It was always fun!" she says now, poking fun at her attempts to manipulate. Pal and CoCo would conspire to get to the gym anyway, and on the rare occasion where her grandfather wasn't available to drive her, CoCo was resourceful: Once, she rode her scooter three miles to school to get to a game before tip-off.

Because CoCo avoided specializing in tennis longer than most of her peers, she developed an all-around athleticism that is noticeable in her play today, but also fell behind in areas like shot selection and court awareness. At age 13, she realized she had to make a choice if she wanted to excel in either sport. She asked her grandfather what to do, and he advised her to sit in a quiet room and ask God to help her find the right path. "So I sat in the room," CoCo says. "And here I am, playing tennis."

***

Tennis unleashed a different side of Vandeweghe, one that still stymies her. A singles match is unique in the strain it places on an athlete. There are no teammates to share the burden of competition, no coach to recalibrate strategy after each point. There is just an athlete and her racket. And unlike other solo pursuits like golf or swimming or track, tennis offers a human obstacle on the other side of the net, one trained to sense any sign of weakness, then use it as a means of destruction. It is a combat sport where the blood spilled is mental.

Vandeweghe tends to spill her own blood. "She's her own worst critic," says Kardon, who started working with her this past May. Jan-Michael Gambill, her coach from 2011-13, tells stories of Vandeweghe's demolishing rackets and leaving handprints on her thighs from slapping herself so hard. One unforced error would outweigh six winners, then snowball into a lost set.

"Why do I put so much pressure on myself?" Vandeweghe asks. "I don't know. I want to achieve my dreams. I want to be great at what I do."

That's a heavy burden to carry into an individual match. And there's more than a fair share of Tauna in that confession. When Vandeweghe was growing up, her mother had but one rule for her on the court. "If you give 100 percent, I don't care if you lose 6-0, 6-0," she would tell her daughter. "But you'd better give 100 percent, because you're dragging me out there too. And nobody's going to waste my time."

So when things don't go right for Vandeweghe, it's easy to imagine a derisive voice emerging inside her head, one that sounds just like Tauna and questions her commitment or even her talent. Her mom wouldn't doubt it, "because I was so hard on her and I tolerated nothing," Tauna acknowledges. And it's why Tauna has deliberately changed her message. "My mantra the past two years has been, 'CoCo, if you make a mistake, so what?'"

Vandeweghe wishes she had an answer for that question. Plenty of coaches have tried to help her find one. But even as her game improves -- she ranked 110th on tour at the end of 2013, rose to 40th in 2014 and climbed as high as 32nd earlier this season (she enters the Open at No. 46) -- her red eyes still come out. The only thing she is sure about is that her mom doesn't deserve any blame.

"My mom is probably my biggest hero," Vandeweghe says. "When things go wrong, when everyone disappears, she's always there. So it's not pressure at all from her.

"People looking on the outside, they don't know the intricate workings of my family. My family is basically my team. When people see my mother when I was growing up being overbearing and whatnot, it was just that she was teaching me fundamentals I use now."

Pressure doesn't always manifest itself as anger for Vandeweghe. She can also lose focus and "go for a walkabout," as she puts it. Vic Braden, the legendary tennis instructor, noticed that trait when he worked with her and tried to fix it with a rubber band. He had her wear one on her wrist, and when she felt her mind wandering, she was supposed to snap the band and say, "stop," under the idea that the mind responds best to simple directives. Vandeweghe has since ditched the band, but still utters the one-word command when her attention drifts.

That's the extent to which Vandeweghe is willing to tolerate therapy. "It's tough for me to explain to somebody how I got to how I am now," she says. "I'm not here to give you a sob story about me and my brother getting into a fight. I want to know what the heck I'm doing at 15-40, facing a break point."

A psychologist might respond that the exploration of the past tends to be the best route to the answers Vandeweghe seeks. But that type of work takes trust. And for Vandeweghe, that quality comes in short supply.

***

In February of 2014, Vandeweghe traveled to Acapulco, Mexico, for a hard-court tournament. There, she lost a three-setter to Risa Ozaki in the first round of qualifying. Ozaki was ranked 171st in the world, and the loss was Vandeweghe's fifth in a row. Something had to change.

Vandeweghe had already switched coaches the previous summer, leaving her friend Gambill to work with Maciej Synowka, largely because he would push her harder. But no amount of advice would matter if she were out of shape. Since she was a teenager, coaches had been telling Vandeweghe that she needed to focus on fitness. But as anyone with a muffin top or a second chin knows, that motivation has to come from within. Vandeweghe finally found hers in Mexico.

"I lost because I got too tired and I didn't want to be out there to continue to compete with her," Vandeweghe says. "So I sat down and really just took a hard look in the mirror. I actually called my grandfather and I was like, 'Pal, this isn't what I want to be doing. I don't want to be out here playing like this anymore.' "

After conferring with her grandfather, she reached out to Brent Callaway, a trainer with whom she'd worked in the past. Tennis took a back seat in favor of two-a-days designed to improve her mobility and stamina. For four months, she struggled to find a payoff. She beat Samantha Stosur and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Miami, but then lost six of her next 10 matches. The last one in that stretch, against Klara Koukalova in Birmingham, England, became a turning point. "Maciej and I got into a huge fight after that," Vandeweghe says. "I had choked, and he was really mad about that, and he laid into me pretty good."

They went two days without talking, from England to Holland. "I felt like I was deserted," Vandeweghe says. "I hate that feeling. I don't confide in a lot of people and when I do, it's really special. I'm pretty closed off."

Vandeweghe and Synowka finally aired their differences -- loudly -- following her first-round qualifying match at 's-Hertogenbosch. Then she embarked on an unprecedented run of success. She beat two top-75 players to reach the quarterfinals, then won her next three matches without dropping a set to claim her first career title.

That should have cemented the relationship between player and coach. Instead, even as Vandeweghe climbed the rankings, their screaming matches stormed on. Sometimes the subject was Vandeweghe's commitment. Other times it was Synowka's commitment. But the hard-driving Polish coach could never fully connect with the Californian who'd travel in flip-flops and dish on the "Real Housewives." And, as with every coach before him, she could never open up enough to commit to his mentorship.

"Maybe you break up with that coach and then they have that ammo for the next player that they coach," Vandeweghe says, explaining why she holds back information. "Then they know CoCo likes to do this particular shot here."

Everyone close to Vandeweghe understands the root of that problem. "Besides my father, all the men that have ever been in her life -- which has been my fault -- have abandoned her and then tried to use things against her," Tauna says.

Ask Vandeweghe about any topic and she's quick with an opinion. Only one subject remains an exception: her father. Vandeweghe shuts down at the mere mention of his name. Trying to coax details from her about their past, about the forced visitations to New York during her childhood summers, about legally changing her last name to formally rid herself of his influence is like asking a Secret Service agent for the president's laptop password. "I have zero relationship with my father," she says. "Screw me over once, and you're not going to screw me over twice. I had enough, and at 16, I decided I didn't want to deal with it anymore."

Tauna remarried when CoCo was 9 and gave birth to two other children -- Crash (now 13) and Honnie (now 12). But last year, her husband left. And then last November, the only man that CoCo had ever fully trusted, the one she called Pal, died at 86 from complications related to a kidney infection. CoCo and Tauna were alone, together.

Through it all, though, Vandeweghe's tennis kept improving. And her relationship with Synowka kept deteriorating. She began 2015 by reaching the third round of the Australian Open for the first time, which vaulted her to 32nd in the world. But Synowka then failed to secure a work visa, and Vandeweghe spent most of the spring training without his help. By the time the two reconnected at Strasbourg, something had to give. And in the second round against Sloane Stephens, it finally did.

During a changeover, Vandeweghe called on Synowka for on-court coaching. Once again, the conversation grew heated. According to Vandeweghe, Synowka told her that she never took responsibility for anything and that she always blamed other people. "That triggered something that I hadn't felt since I was a kid, where I lost total control," she says. "I felt like when I would go visit my dad and would be so mad at him for whatever was going on."

Vandeweghe asked the chair umpire to remove Synowka from the stands. At the hotel that night, the coach told her that he was returning to Poland, but then knocked on her door the next morning and tried to convince her that he hadn't quit, that they still had more to accomplish as a team. "And I said, 'booking your flight to Poland and telling me you're quitting is not quitting?' " Vandeweghe recalls. "Fine. You're fired. Get out of my room."

***

Craig Kardon has coached Martina Navratilova, Mary Pierce, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport. So he knows tennis talent when he sees it.

When Vandeweghe and Synowka split three days before the French Open, she needed an emergency replacement. And Kardon saw an opportunity worth pursuing. "I know I can help this girl," he told Vandeweghe's agent.

A few weeks later, they co-authored that Wimbledon run. "I think it was huge for her to realize that she belongs where she belongs," Kardon says. "But that's only the beginning of what she's capable of."

At the US Open, that could mean a semifinal appearance. Or a first-round loss. Anything is possible with a game that is both explosive and a work in progress, especially since the duo has spent less than three months working together. Still, Kardon's vision of a potential Wimbledon champion is not outrageous. Women's tennis is no longer dominated by teenagers. As the game has grown increasingly physical, more players are peaking in their mid-20s. Vandeweghe, with such clear ability and malleable flaws, seems poised to follow that path.

First she must learn to build off success: Since Wimbledon, she has lost four of five matches. The most recent came last Monday in New Haven, Connecticut, and showed how far Vandeweghe still must travel to reach her goals. She faced Agnieszka Radwanska, the 15th-ranked player in the world and Vandeweghe's polar opposite. Radwanska owns a fraction of Vandeweghe's power, but is twice as crafty. Quick to reach balls and steady enough to put them back in play, she forced Vandeweghe to hit extra shots that would eventually become errors.

Vandeweghe couldn't handle the frustration. Down 0-5 in the first set, she wouldn't even look Kardon in the eye as he offered instruction during a changeover, cursing to herself loudly enough to be caught on camera. Later, she would smack a ball out of the stadium to earn a warning from the chair umpire. It would be Vandeweghe's most lopsided defeat of the season, 6-0, 6-2, and all the old demons had made an appearance. That's not the way to head to New York.

But Vandeweghe's lone victory since Wimbledon offers hope. It came in Cincinnati against a feisty Russian-born Kazakh named Yulia Putintseva. Two years ago, the two played at Brussels, and after Putintseva won the qualifying match, Vandeweghe took to Twitter to complain that Putintseva had called her "a terrible player." The feud escalated, with Vandeweghe tweeting that she had "never played a person with worst [sic] sportsmanship," and Putintseva responding that Vandeweghe was just angry that she had lost to a younger player.

In Cincinnati, Vandeweghe found revenge, blasting Putintseva, 6-3, 6-2. Shortly after the match, a Vine made its way through the Twitterverse showing Putintseva muttering to herself in Russian after Vandeweghe passed her with a cross-court backhand. A couple bilingual Twitter users translated it this way: "She should go to the casino today. She should bet everything on zero."

But as Putintseva grew more and more frustrated, Vandeweghe kept quiet. She just kept hitting winners. On match point, she watched Putintseva's return sail wide, strode slowly to the net, and shook her hand.

There was just one order of business remaining. The night before the match, Kardon had challenged Vandeweghe to come up with a victory celebration. So she turned toward he coach, hopped on one foot, and strummed her racket like a guitar, smiling broadly. The chords were sweet. The song still requires fine-tuning.