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My Way

Aug 29 2017
Photo by
Corinne Dubreuil/Sipa USA/AP Images
Photo by
Corinne Dubreuil/Sipa USA/AP Images
Aug 29 2017

I n February 2011, I cracked the top 100 for the first time.

But all I was thinking was, I just made a huge mistake.

I was homesick.

I was raised in California by my mother and my grandparents, and along with my older brother, Beau, we were all incredibly close. We did everything together. I actually only got into tennis because Beau got into it first, and I was that kid sister who just tagged along and copied everything my brother did. As I got more experienced in the sport, my trips to tournaments doubled as family vacations. My mother played volleyball in the 1984 Olympics (she also swam in the ’76 Games), so she was a total beach rat. But she didn’t really know much about tennis, or being a “tennis mom,” especially when it came to youth tournaments.

One time, she saw there was a tournament in Hawaii, so of course, she signed me up — because she wanted to go to Hawaii. It ended up being this super high-end tournament, a national qualifier, and I played well enough that I qualified for a bunch of other big-time national tournaments. But tennis was secondary the whole time — it was more like, We get to go to Hawaii! That was the angle. Me, my mom and Beau got out there two days beforehand just so we could hit the beach. (Playing with a sunburn? Not the greatest.)

That’s kind of our family, though, in a nutshell: tight-knit beach bums who just did things our own way.

Coco Vandeweghe

But when I was about 18 I moved to Florida to train at the USTA’s national tennis academy. For the first time in my life, I had to live away from my family — and that was a really tough adjustment for me. Whether it was being a part of my mom’s travel plans, or keeping up with my brother, or just hanging out with friends, sports had never been an individual pursuit for me. They had always been about being a part of something, and about having fun within the natural flow of my life. Suddenly, I felt alone and powerless. And I started to resent tennis.

Because I started at the academy later than most people — most of the other kids there were 14 or 15 — I didn’t have much in common with anyone, or have many friends my age. I also just couldn’t do things my way there, at all. I wasn’t allowed to have a car, which is something that really stung for a California kid. I couldn’t even cross the street alone to go to the mall. Things were very regimented, and I just felt like I was missing that easygoing spirit that had defined my life with my mom and my brothers.

And so there I was, 18 and in the top 100 in the world — and I was hating it. I just had so many doubts, so many questions. I wanted to go home and be with my family.

I wanted to regain control of my career and my life.

And I guess it came down to this — I wanted the feeling of competing on my own terms, even if that meant that I had to deal with the pressure of losing on my own terms, too. Everybody’s different, and I’m not saying this because I’m proud of it … but I definitely did learn this about myself: If I’m not doing what I want to do, and I’m not truly believing in it, then it’s not possible for me to give my 100%. And what’s funny is — that applies on the court just like it does off of it.

Kin Cheung/AP Images

Which is why, in my first WTA final against Serena Williams in 2012, a light went on.

It’s hard to articulate what makes the top 10 or so players different from everyone behind them … but this match against Serena was my first taste of what that meant, for sure. And it was also a measuring stick for where I was as a player.

At first, I was playing shot for shot with her. I actually served for the first set! But then, on set point, I double-faulted — and with a player like Serena, that’s all she needs to run through you. There’s no way you can prepare for your first matchup against that caliber of player. All you can do is live through it and learn. Serena played as if she almost didn’t care what I was doing. She just approached the game her way, and made me play on her terms. Even when I would have her cornered — or think that I had her cornered — she would have a plan to counter me.

The aura the great players exude … well, it’s overwhelming. They have you beat before you even walk out there. Every tour player’s game poses a problem for an opponent — and for all of their great traditional strengths, what Venus and Serena excel at is the problem-solving side of the game. The mental side. They find ways to impose their games on you, even if doing so requires backup game plans on their part. As a player, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of somebody else’s game plan. You want to be the one forcing your opponent to stop you.

That was when that lesson really sank in — that maybe doing it my way was the answer. Playing against Serena at Stanford helped me understand that, for all of my worrying, and for all of my hating the sport at times, it actually hadn’t been a mistake to go all-in with my tennis. Not only could I compete with the best players in the entire sport, but I could also hold my own against one of the greatest players of all time.

I just needed to change my approach.

So I took a big-time look in the mirror. All throughout my career, people had criticized my fitness — and I decided to really tackle that head-on. My trainer, Brent Callaway, became a constant presence in my life. I knew that if I was going to get to where I wanted to be, it was going to be up to me to get control of my career. And I did. With better fitness came more aggressiveness. And with more aggressiveness came an ability to impose my will on matches — and to make my opponents play according to my style. Pretty soon, I cracked the top 40, and I haven’t fallen out of it since.

I did it my way, on my terms.

Of course, while I’m beyond proud of that … there were also some indirect consequences. One of them, unfortunately, was a lot of experimenting with coaches. And I’ll be the first to admit that some of that was not pretty.

But I just kept at it — and in the summer of 2015, I made the Wimbledon quarterfinals for the first time ever.

For the first time in my career, I felt like I was in complete control. And once I started feeling that control, I started setting clearer goals for myself: the Fed Cup, the Olympics, the top 20 in the world. And of course, building on that Wimbledon result — and getting back to the second week of a Slam.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

When I made it to the semifinals of the Australian Open earlier this year, man: It was honestly amazing. Not because I didn’t think I could do it — but because I almost didn’t get out of the first round.

The day before the tournament started, I was walking around the cafeteria and I made a rare audible. Usually, my order is chicken and rice, but for whatever reason, I decided to go with the red meat entree because it looked good. I think it was lamb … or something. Looking back, it’s probably not good that I didn’t know.

Haha, whoops.

Anyway, I knew that Roberta Vinci, my first-round opponent, was a tough player — she was seeded No. 15, and I’m sure she was most people’s pick to advance. But I also knew that I was playing really well. And I kept playing really well, to start the match, right on through the first set. I was smashing my serve. I was firing off winners. I won the first 6–1, easy as can be — I was in total control. And then … all of the sudden … I started to feel really queasy. Like, really queasy. The thought instantly shot to my mind — Oh God, oh no, I’m going to barf.  

So there I am, up a set, we’re changing over … and I’m trying not to barf. Somehow, during that changeover, I manage not to — but I’m still hurting like crazy. And I know that the rest of the way is going to be a struggle. All I’m thinking is, you know, Hold on to your servejust hold on to your serve, Coco … and you’re going to get through this. Oh, and please don’t barf.

It was a battle, but I managed to hold my serve the whole way through, and get to a second-set tiebreak — which I had to work my ass off to win. But I won. Straight sets, no vomit.

And then I went on the run of my life.

Jason Heidrich/Icon Sportswire

The funny thing is, the crowd in Australia loved me. I had the crowd on my side, which was extremely unexpected — after all, I’m an American. But I think they saw me for who I am: a laid-back California kid off the court, and a passionate fighter on it. They called me “Coco Pops” (I think it’s like their equivalent of Cocoa Puffs? I hope?), and “Band-o-Wedge” (O.K., I actually think that might have been a heckler) — and it felt like they almost adopted me as one of their own for the tournament. As someone who has often felt like a sort of polarizing figure, I’ve gotta say, the support Down Under really kept me afloat. It was cool.

After I beat Eugenie Bouchard in a tight match in round 3 — that one was like two dogs fighting over a bone — I faced the No. 1 seeded player in the tournament, Angelique Kerber.

I beat her 6–4, 6–3.

It was like I had finally hit my stride. I was imposing my will on the tournament — and making everyone I played, no matter how high they were on the ladder, play our matches on my terms. I was making them come to me. I was dominating.

The next round, in the quarterfinals, I faced Garbiñe Muguruza, world No. 7.

I beat her 6–4, 6–0.

While this wasn’t my first time beating players of that caliber … it was definitely the first time the thought had hit me, like, Wait … why shouldn’t I be beating these players? While I was a little nervous to be in the semifinals — just one step away from my first Slam final! — I didn’t feel like I had been lucky to get there. I felt like this was the player I could be.

But then, in the semis, I faced Venus Williams.

Ah, the Williams sisters. They strike the ball so well, and they’ve won 120-plus singles titles between them. But like I said, I don’t think their biggest strength — being incredible problem solvers — gets enough attention. They’re just constantly adjusting. So even when you think you’re in control, that can change so fast.

And that’s what happened to me in the semis against Venus: I won a tight first set … but then Venus got up quickly in the second. In other words, by the time we had switched over between sets, she had fully absorbed what I was doing with my game, and had figured out how to beat it. And by the time I got a grip on what I needed to do to change my game plan … well, there were no more games left: 7–6, 2–6, 3–6.

But more like 7–6, 2–6, welp.

And yet, as disappointing as it was to lose to Venus in Australia, I don’t think it was a total loss — I learned a lot from that match. I had 13 break point chances against her, and I only converted one. Which is not exactly a stat you love to see — but in a way, it was a breakthrough: The feeling that, at least for part of the match, Venus had to stop me. But, of course, she had a plan for that, too. Even as she was defending me, she was figuring out what her adjustment would be. And that’s what swung the match in the second set.

I lost to Venus not because I couldn’t win, or couldn’t think of a way to win — but because I couldn’t think of a way to win fast enough.

Disappointment … but progress. Motivation for the next time.

Kin Cheung/AP Images

So I guess that’s where I’m at right now — proud of where I’ve gotten in tennis, but still feeling like there’s so much more that I can do. I understand how far I can go … and I’ve figured out what I have to do to get there. And now I just have to put it all together, you know? That’s it. There’s no secret recipe. I’ve just got to keep working hard and hope the results will come.

And that’s part of why I’m so excited about this year’s U.S. Open. In my past trips to New York, the results haven’t been there. I’ll spare you the ugly details, but you can look it up — I haven’t really had a ton of success at the Open. But this week’s tournament feels like a big opportunity for me to kind of get over that hump. To make a leap. The thing about the Open is that it’s just everything I love about tennis: an electric atmosphere, a chance to prove yourself against the best and a crowd that can make you or break you. More than any other tournament on earth, I feel like the U.S. Open is a place where the crowd respects two things: great competition, and passionate styles of play.

Which is to say that it’s my kind of place. Because no matter how well I do this week, and hopefully the week after — and no matter how well I do in the years and Opens to come — there are two things, more than any others, that I can promise you for sure. I’ll fight like hell.

And I’ll do it my way.