Armed with a tennis racket and ball, CoCo Vandeweghe stands on a soccer field off a busy street in Carlsbad, California. Despite the late afternoon traffic on the chilly December day, it's quiet on the field, with a glow radiating from the setting sun.
It's a month before the Australian Open, but Vandeweghe isn't focused on her day job. The woman with the powerful serve and pulverizing forehand is trying to get some exercise for her dog, Duchess.
The ball sails into the distance every time. There's no way to disguise the swing of a two-time Grand Slam semifinalist. Duchess sprints in pursuit.
It's an unexpected sight: the outspoken American tennis star known for her aggressive playing style and bold personality smiling on a still, picturesque field alone with her dog. But the CoCo you see here and the CoCo you'll get next week in Melbourne at the first Grand Slam of the season are two different things. One is thoughtful and introverted, most comfortable around family and close friends. The other struts about the court, smashes her rackets and speak her mind.
"I think probably the biggest misconception about me is I'm arrogant," said the 26-year-old who advanced to the semifinals at both the Australian Open and US Open last season. "I don't find myself to be arrogant when I'm around people or even walking around, but I seem to get called arrogant a bunch. And that I don't understand.
"It doesn't make me feel great. But at the end of the day, I've never been big about what people say about me or let it really affect me. ... When I was 13 or 14, it bothered me when people made fun of me, like any person. But I know who I am."
Born in New York City, Vandeweghe moved to Southern California with her mom and brother after her parents' divorce when she was 9 years old. Her mother, Tauna, an Olympian in swimming and volleyball, raised her two children as a single mother with help from her parents, former New York Knicks star Ernie Vandeweghe and 1952 Miss America Colleen Kay Hutchins. Vandeweghe has been estranged from her father since she was 16.
She credits being raised by strong women -- her mother and grandmother -- as the reason she never shies from speaking up when she thinks something is wrong. In 2015, she said Maria Sharapova resorted to poor sportsmanship in their Wimbledon quarterfinal, and she called Carmelo Anthony "soft" during the US Open. Last year in Melbourne, she talked on court about toilet paper, stomach issues and turning into a freight train after her quarterfinal win over Garbine Muguruza.
But then there's the other, reflective side of Vandeweghe, who credits her grandmother for instilling a deep-rooted obligation to respond to every fan who writes to her with a card and a note. "She used to always do that as Miss America, and I don't know if it was her thing or a Miss America thing, but I started doing it too," she said.
Unlike most professional players, who have been playing since before they could sign their names, Vandeweghe didn't start playing tennis until she was 11, instead focusing on basketball (her grandfather taught her how to be a "pesty" player) and other team sports. She didn't commit to tennis until her sophomore year of high school. Even then, she attended a regular school and hung out mostly with friends who didn't play tennis.
At 16, she won the 2008 US Open girls' singles title without dropping a set. She immediately moved on to the ITF circuit, and she was appearing regularly in WTA events by 2010. She spent some time at the USTA national training center in Florida, as a 17-year-old, but she hated the rigidity of it and being away from her family. She left after a year and returned to California.
In 2014, Vandeweghe won her first WTA title at the Topshelf Open (now known as the Ricoh Open), and she had a breakthrough season in 2015, when she advanced to the third round at the Australian Open and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
Soon after her run at the All-England Club, where she pushed Sharapova in a three-set thriller, Vandeweghe was tabbed as one of the next big things in the sport.
The media loved her big personality and family ties. In addition to her mother and grandparents (both of whom have passed), her uncle is former Knicks standout and NBA executive Kiki Vandeweghe. The 6-foot-1 CoCo has been a polarizing figure among tennis fans, who either love her for her big serve and matching disposition or think she's disrespectful and, you guessed it, arrogant.
She jokes, in fact, that she's "supporting the WTA on fines alone." She hasn't kept count of the number and can't provide a dollar figure, but she knows she has been hit a lot. And, of course, she has something to say about that. In September at the China Open, she (reluctantly) attended a player party (she was required to go) and wore a tank top that said "Sorry I'm late, I didn't want to come." She said she got the attire cleared by two officials, but she was fined $7,500 for being disrespectful to the tournament and its sponsors. She appealed -- and lost.
Even so, she isn't giving up hope that the WTA will come around on what she considers excessive requirements and fines -- for her sake and the sake of her peers.
"The WTA was supposed to be a player union when it started," she said between launching balls for Duchess. "But as the tour evolved, it became something else. It's a business, and they're looking out for tournaments and sponsors, which they should as a business. But there's no one protecting the players anymore."
The length of the season and grueling travel demands are issues Vandeweghe wants to fix. At the end of October, she (reluctantly) played in the WTA Elite tournament in China. Considered a second-tier year-end event, Vandeweghe wasn't thrilled to be there, but she also didn't want the $50,000 fine if she didn't play.
She set a goal to win two matches, but while she was on the practice court, coach Pat Cash informed her that she would crack the top 10 for the first time the following week. Bolstered by the news, she advanced to the final before falling to Julia Goerges.
No extra motivation was needed for her next, and final, stop: representing the U.S. in the Fed Cup final in Belarus. In a doubles match alongside Shelby Rogers, whom she considers one of her closest friends, Vandeweghe helped clinch the team's first title in 17 years. She considers the American victory one of the proudest moments of her career.
After nearly 11 grueling months on the road, Vandeweghe returned home to Rancho Santa Fe, where she lives by herself. She took a weeklong trip with family to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where she didn't work out at all and went scuba diving and ATVing. Upon returning, she started workouts at EXOS Training Center (sometimes multiple times a day) in Carlsbad but allowed herself to play tennis only when she felt like it.
That was never.
She returned to the court in early December, after about three weeks away, before an exhibition match with the Bryan brothers ("just so I didn't look silly"). She then began working again with Cash, who lives in England but spent several weeks in California.
That leads her back here to the soccer field, across the road from her training center, with Duchess, just a few days before Christmas. She goes unnoticed and appears relaxed heading into the holiday, especially for someone who is leaving the day after Christmas for several weeks in Australia.
Vandeweghe and Cash are hungry for more success in 2018. The two began their partnership in June, after Vandeweghe's former coach, Craig Kardon, quit following her first-round exit at the French Open. She considered going without a coach but was convinced to talk with Cash, a former Grand Slam champion. On their first day, Vandeweghe lost in the first round at the Ricoh Open, where she was the defending champion and two-time winner. Cash thought they were slated for disaster but was impressed with her resolve.
"We could have gone back to the hotel and moped, not knowing what to say over the dinner table," Cash said. "But we [instead] went out on the practice court and worked hard."
They agreed to work together at least through the US Open later in the summer. Vandeweghe sensed right away that he wasn't a typical coach. And she would know: She has been through at least four in her professional career.
"I usually leave on the next flight out after I lose at a Grand Slam," she said. "I lost in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, but he kept me around. It was almost like him pouring salt in the wound. He kept me around there, and I was still practicing, and I was seeing all these people win, and I could still hear the crowd and see the stadium. I stayed until the finals.
"Looking back on it, I could say it was [motivation], but in the moment, I was like, 'I hate every second I'm here.' He kind of likes to play Jedi mind tricks on me."
"I think you could drive yourself insane if you didn't have any good friends out there." CoCo Vandeweghe
The road is, in general, an uncomfortable place for Vandeweghe. She gets homesick and is grateful to have a group of fellow players, including Rogers, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Madison Keys, whom she counts among her inner circle.
"I think you could drive yourself insane if you didn't have any good friends out there," she said. "I grew up with eight people in my house, and then going to being alone in a hotel room, it sucks. So I think that's why I found a good group of people that I know I can trust."
She still misses Duchess. The 9-year-old White Shepard stays with Vandeweghe's mom, who lives nearby, while Vandeweghe is on the road. This year, Duchess will have a friend to keep her company. Vandeweghe's younger half-sister found an abandoned puppy at the beginning of the offseason. Vandeweghe can rattle off all the reasons a person who lives alone and travels 11 months of the year shouldn't have a puppy, and she even named the dog "Puppy" so she wouldn't get attached. But the heart wants what it wants, and Vandeweghe now has two dogs.
Dogs, she insists, keep her calm. She plans to bring both to Indian Wells in March.
Her friends also help keep her relaxed. They helped her celebrate her "birthday month" throughout December in California, New York and Miami with '90s-themed parties, dinners, cover-band shows and late-night snowball fights. But Vandeweghe also relishes time alone watching her favorite television shows. She's a self-confessed Bravo addict who lights up when talking about "Vanderpump Rules."
"Stassi is my favorite cast member," she said. "I actually got to do a podcast with her. I was fan-girling. I don't really get too starstruck with people, but yeah, I was totally fan-girling with Stassi. ... If I saw Lisa Vanderpump, I might lose my mind."
As much as she loves watching reality shows, she has no interest in being on one, even if "Vandeweghe Rules" has a nice ring to it. Calling herself a "closet good time," she values privacy and solitude. (For the record, she's totally cool if one of her friends wants to date Jax, and she would love to witness that train wreck firsthand.)
Besides, being on a show would likely distract Vandeweghe from the ultimate goal: winning a Grand Slam. While she needs regular breaks from tennis, she still has major aspirations, starting with a title at the Australian Open. Seeded 10th, Vandeweghe plays Timea Babos in the first round in Melbourne.
"There are very few days when I don't smile to myself in admiration of her ability to improve in this or that area," Cash said. "My main aim is to keep moving forward and improving. In a way, she has no option if she wants to get results down the line. With some luck and no injuries, I think we will see her pushing toward Grand Slam semifinals and finals again. It will be hard to top 2017, but we will try."