Balls at a tennis tournament number in the thousands, and almost all are of the bouncy, fuzzy, yellow-green variety. But for CoCo Vandeweghe, the 23-year-old, New York-born, California-raised American who recently made a bulldozing run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals, some of her best work is done throwing a pigskin in a tight spiral.
“Tennis was my last sport, so I grew up learning how to throw a ball,” Vandeweghe told the Observer earlier this month in Washington, D.C., where she was playing a WTA Tour event. “I wanted to play with all the boys, I wanted to play with my older brother and those sorts of things. If I didn’t know how to throw a football I couldn’t play with them, so I learned how to play sports. When I see people that can’t throw a football, it’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ For me, it’s quite comical.”
There is nothing funny about the positive effects those skills have brought to Vandeweghe’s tennis. Her quarterbacking has translated into an effective and reliable serve, a rare asset in the women’s game. On the fast grass courts of Wimbledon in July, she had the third-most aces (39) and clocked one at 117 m.p.h.
Her serve has impressed even when not earning her wins. After Serena Williams rolled to a routine 6-3, 6-1 win over Vandeweghe in Miami last year, the former suggested at the net that the two should play doubles some day.
“Besides the obvious?” Williams responded in explaining the invitation, referring to Vandeweghe’s booming serve. “Well, she’s improved a great deal. Her focus is so much better. Her movement is good. Her attitude is great. She’s a nice girl.”
At Wimbledon, that serve helped her reel off a string of upsets over seeded players—Karolina Pliskova, Samantha Stosur and Lucie Safarova—before falling in the quarterfinals to Maria Sharapova. Though she had never been past the third round of a major event, Vandeweghe was not overwhelmed by the moment.
‘If I think someone on the outside is doing me wrong, I’m not going to be shy about it and get pushed to the wayside because I think I should keep my mouth shut. I’m my own person, you know?’
“I don’t know if I would say it was a breakthrough; I think it was hard work paying off for me,” she said. “I mean, I’ve been putting in a lot of good, quality work, and I’ve been expecting a good result for, gosh, it feels like a long time,” she said. And it has been: Vandeweghe played her first Tour event back in 2006.
She comes from a long line of athletes; her grandfather, Ernie Vandeweghe, played guard for the Knicks in the early ’50s; her uncle, Kiki Vandeweghe, was a two-time NBA All-Star and later general manager of the Denver Nuggets; and her mother, Tauna, was an Olympic swimmer and volleyball player. Despite the sporting pedigree, her self-assuredness and comfort performing in front of crowds comes foremost from an unlikely source: her grandmother, Colleen Kay Hutchins, who won Miss America in 1952.
Though she goes by her nickname CoCo, Vandeweghe was named after her grandmother, who lived with the family in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., teaching her granddaughter not only how to walk in high heels but imbuing her with self-confidence. Though Vandeweghe shows little of the typical grace of a pageant contestant, often jockishly yanking at the spandex shorts under her skirt during matches, Vandeweghe still has a certain winning air—some might say cockiness—that has shone through even when her ranking was unremarkable, which it has been for most of her career. (Despite winning the junior U.S. Open in 2008 at age 16, she only broke into the top 50 for the first time a year ago.)
“It’s like ‘Fake it ‘til you make it’ a little bit sometimes,” she said. “I’m a very shy person, so for me to be outwardly confident and things like that is very difficult for me, so I definitely had to work on it. My friends in junior tennis, they always made fun of my walk. Just the way I walk, it’s like a swagger and a strut. And I never realized it; it was just ingrained in me from what my grandmother taught me.”
Her self-description is immediately flabbergasting, given her willingness to pick fights when she feels even the slightest bit aggrieved.
“That’s different from being shy, that’s more of my aggressiveness and my personality,” she countered. “I’m definitely not shy in that way. I’ve never been someone to back down from any sort of confrontation; I almost look for those sorts of confrontations in my own life today. I think I’ve gotten better at it, but what I think is right is what I think is right. If I think someone on the outside is doing me wrong, I’m not going to be shy about it and get pushed to the wayside because I think I should keep my mouth shut. I’m my own person, you know?”
Vandeweghe’s willingness to speak her mind has already made her popular with the media. The scandal-hungry British tabloids were delighted at Wimbledon when Vandeweghe said Sharapova for moving around while she was in mid-service motion.
And when she said earlier in the tournament that Carmelo Anthony lacked killer instinct and was “soft,” New York-based reporters returned to their desks giddy with excitement at the remark, which would spread to Deadspin and beyond. (Vandeweghe, who called herself a “huge New York Knicks fan,” felt she had been “thrown to the wolves” for that remark, which she also believed had been taken out of context.)
“She’s a sweetheart once you get to know her but yes, she can be confrontational, and she knows that about herself,” says American player Irina Falconi, a pal. “It all comes down to the fact that she doesn’t take [grief] from anybody.”
Her refusal to back down was clearest when she crossed paths a couple years ago in Brussels with the equally feisty Yulia Putintseva, who herself is the daughter of a Soviet wrestler. A petite pony keg of alternating rage and exuberance, Putintseva won that match and then, Vandeweghe claimed, mocked her, saying, “You are a terrible player, only serve.”
‘Well, if I really bumped into her, and I meant to do it, she would be on the ground,” said Vandeweghe of her brief bump of Donna Vekic at last year’s Open. “I mean, it’s just trying to make something out of nothing, which is fine, but I miss that kind of feistiness and confrontation of when I could play a physical sport.’
Putintseva says now, “I won’t say I didn’t say that. But it happened right after when she told me that I am a fucking bitch who doesn’t know how to play tennis at all, and that my father is so stupid, and she started bullshitting me. ”
Though she now vehemently denies ever using the language Putintseva claims, citing her Mormon upbringing, Vandeweghe took exception to Putintseva after the dust-up, and aired her displeasure on Twitter.
The image-sensitive WTA then threatened to fine Vandeweghe should she air such dirty laundry in public again. (Putintseva claims she was told that the WTA did in fact fine Vandeweghe $5,000, which it denies and has no record of.) Regardless, she did not enjoy feeling censored.
“Being American and being obnoxious a little bit, I was like, ‘Well, I’m an American, so I have freedom of speech,’ ” Vandeweghe recalled. “And they said, ‘Well, you’re under WTA, so…’ O.K., that’s understandable.”
Earlier this week in Cincinnati, Vandeweghe got revenge on Putintseva in straight sets—and played an impromptu air guitar on court afterward.
With her unflinching demeanor, Vandeweghe finds herself exasperated by the passive-aggressiveness that she believes dominates the social sphere of women’s tennis.
“It’s like high school all over again, which I hated,” she said. “A lot of my friends tell me the back story—‘Well, did you hear about so and so, they were at the player party and someone said a sarcastic, snide comment and the whole dinner just went downhill from there!’ I’m just like, ‘Oh God, you guys are ridiculous!’ Let’s at least make it interesting, like someone kicked the other person’s bag or something like that.”
The one time Vandeweghe was said to have gotten physical with another player occurred in a small incidental collision with Donna Vekic during last year’s U.S. Open
“Well, if I really bumped into her, and I meant to do it, she would be on the ground,” said Vandeweghe, shrugging. “I mean, it’s just trying to make something out of nothing, which is fine, but I miss that kind of feistiness and confrontation of when I could play a physical sport.”
Vandeweghe conceded that her personality is probably best suited to flying solo.
“I might have enjoyed it a little bit more to begin with,” she said of playing basketball, which she did as a child, “but I think I enjoy the individuality of tennis where I don’t have to rely on anybody else.”
Call her Ronda Rousey of tennis. In fact, she gets most excited when discussing how, at her home gym in California, EXOS, she and her trainers fantasized about starting a fight club, replete with medieval weapons.
“‘If we had an EXOS fight club’ ”—don’t talk about fight club, but—“‘who would you want on your team and what would be your weapon of choice?’ ” she recounts. “And I’m like, ‘I’m so down for this, I want to do it!’ ”
Unsurprisingly, she would like to carry a big stick.
“It’s like a long staff with swords at the end and I could twirl it around and do crazy stuff, like Lucy Liu in Kill Bill,” Vandeweghe said. “I want to do that kind of stuff. I want to be really cool like that.”
Until she finds herself in such a scenario, she will have to be content with doing really cool things with her racket, like blasting aces and forehands. Her raw potential—when it’s on, her aggressive backcourt game can overpower all but a few of the top Tour players—has been noticed by many in the sport. Among them was Craig Kardon, one of the most accomplished coaches working in the WTA today.
“I was always very impressed with her game,” Kardon told the Observer. “It’s kind of similar to the attacking game of another player of mine, Martina.”
He was referring to Martina Navratilova, the most decorated in his stable of charges, which includes Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati. Despite his long list of champs, Kardon was persistent in his pursuit of Vandeweghe, who has won just one tourney—a grass-court event last year—and hasn’t cracked the top 30.
“I kept hammering away,” he said. “Because the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be a good fit.”
He got his wish. Vandeweghe, who had previously worked with former ATP player Jan-Michael Gambill and Polish coach Maciej Synówka, started with Kardon at the French Open. The two have already been through a roller coaster of highs and lows, sometimes within the span of a single match. Kardon believes Vandeweghe is the Tour’s second-best player on grass, behind only Serena Williams, but he is baffled by the rough patches, which come into her games and sink matches.
“My goal for her is to get more first serves in, play a cleaner match, and not make me so damn nervous all the time,” he said after she lost her first-round match against her much steadier countrywoman Christina McHale in Washington in early August. “Because watching her play tennis, it’s a nightmare sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it, but it’s tough.”
Even in victory, McHale admitted that Vandeweghe was often the one at the wheel during their match. “She can be very streaky, so you just kind of have to weather the storm,” McHale said. “When she’s playing great, there’s not really much you can do.”
Her coach thinks Vandeweghe’s biggest improvements can be made in her composure.
“I see the ability; what’s holding her back is her emotions,” he said. “She’s still learning about her own game, and she’s still learning how to control her emotions during a match. Not to get too high, and not to come down on herself. ”
Even after her big win over French Open finalist Safarova in the fourth round of Wimbledon, Vandeweghe remained hung up on her disappointment with her service return, long after an emphatic victory.
“I said, ‘CoCo, you need to just calm down,’ “ Kardon recalled. “’I appreciate your enthusiasm, but that’s a good match and we move on. We don’t worry about that. Your return will get better.’ ”
The one place big enough to bring out Vandeweghe’s nerves is the biggest stadium in her birthplace, the U.S. Open’s cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium. She first played there in 2008 when she was just 16. “I was crazy nervous,” she said. “I remember throwing my first serve up against [Jelena] Jankovic and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to whiff it and I don’t know where it’s going.’ I remember I was going to go up the T, and I aced her wide, unintentionally. That’s how terrified I was. I haven’t had good results on Ashe, so hopefully I’ll get some good results out there. It’s a huge stadium, and the crowd really gets into it. But it’s New York, I want to do well there.”