By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
ANTWERP, Belgium – Four years ago, Vania King felt lost about her tennis. She was not enjoying playing, she no longer had her father as her coach and considered leaving the game and going to college.
In 2006, she had turned professional at Wimbledon at age 17 and also stopped working with her father, who had coached her (and her three siblings) since she was four years old. That was a difficult decision in itself, but their coach-player relationship was no longer working for King, and it was straining their father-daughter relationship, as well.
She continued on with a new coach, Ray Ruffles, and had the best year of her career that season, reaching a career-high of No. 50 in the world, winning her first career WTA Tour singles title in Bangkok and first doubles title in Tokyo.
But the two ended the coaching relationship in early 2007. It was still strange for King not to be working with her father after so many years, and after being accepted to Stanford University, she had to decide whether to keep playing tennis or become a full-time student.
With her ranking still in the top 100, King chose professional tennis, but the rest of that year and 2008 did not go well. She was not enjoying playing, was not motivated to play and her results were reflecting it, as she was both physically and mentally not into the game. She kept wondering if she should have picked college.
But things began to change in early 2009, when she started working full-time with Tarik Benhabiles, former coach of Andy Roddick, at his academy in Boynton Beach, Fla. She moved away from her family in California and was on her own for the first time in her life. She took to Benhabiles’ coaching style and philosophy right away after he told her if she no longer wanted to play to just quit. If she wanted to keep playing, then she had to work for it, and he would help her.
And she did. It did not happen overnight, but under Benhabiles’ tutelage, King’s game has evolved and become stronger in the past two years, with the results showing in a serious way last year, when King won both the Wimbledon and US Open women’s doubles titles with her partner Yaroslava Shvedova. It confirmed that she was a great player and her game belonged in the pro tennis world. And, most importantly, she is now enjoying playing tennis.
"Tarik was the first one who sat me down and said, ‘Look, Vania, if you want to quit tennis, you stop now. If you want to play tennis, then you have to put in the effort and the work,’" King, now 22, recalled of a conversation she and her coach had in early 2009. "Because I wasn’t. I was not putting in the effort and work that I needed to because I didn’t want to play. So why would I do fitness or why would I work harder if I did not want to do it?
"He said, ‘If you put in the effort now, you will get results next year.’ I said, 'OK, I will try.' I put in work for four weeks, and I felt I improved a lot," she added. "I had a very long way to go. I have come a long way since then, and I still have a long way to go. It has been more than two years now. It didn’t change in a heartbeat."
Changing did not come easily, as King had some unhappy memories associated with tennis throughout her life, and it had caused some blurred boundaries with her and her father, David, between where their roles of coach and player and father and daughter began and ended. But not playing tennis anymore seemed strange, as well, having done it for almost her entire life.
"I didn’t know what to do because I had worked all my life with my coach, my dad. He is, of course, the coach who made me what I am, built my foundation. But it was hard, it was difficult because the boundaries between coach and father were blurred, as they usually are, and it was difficult for both of us," she said of ending their coaching relationship.
"Our relationship was pretty strained for awhile," she added. "It is unfortunate, but it is the way it is. Because of tennis, we couldn’t have that proper father-daughter relationship because you build a relationship on being together and the memories you have together, but all the memories I had with him were of tennis, which caused me pain, so I didn’t want to remember those."
She had her classes at Stanford all but picked out in 2007 and had watched her three older siblings – Phillip, Ivana and Mindy – all play tennis and go to great colleges. Ivana, 24, graduated from Princeton and also still plays professionally. All of her friends were also going to college, and King had always assumed she would go, never thinking when she was younger that she would become a professional tennis player.
"I was never sure that I made the right decision. I was always wondering," King said. "And you can’t do that. You can’t wonder. You just have to go for it. I was playing but not enjoying it at all (through 2007 and 2008), just kind of hating tennis. I was playing but going through the motions. I didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to be on the court. I was thinking about school everyday."
Everything about King’s game was off, from her strategy and technique on the court to her mindset, which had all been clicking so well in 2006. She won less than 10 main draw singles matches in 2008. She stopped working with her coach at the time at the end of 2008, and shortly thereafter, she found Benhabiles, whom she had met previously, when she saw he had opened an academy in Florida.
Her father had previously taken King to various coaches throughout her career to help improve her game, including Phil Dent, father of former American pro Taylor Dent, and one of them was also Benhabiles. He had been interested in coaching her brother Phillip when he was a junior, and she would work with him when she was in Florida for various tournaments, enjoying his approach to players and the game.
In early 2009, King saw on Facebook that he had opened his own academy, L’Academie de Tennis, and with her ranking hovering around No. 140 in the world and quickly running out of money to travel to tournaments unless she won some more money, she sent him an email, unsure of what else to do. With the Australian Open coming up, she was considering quitting tennis if she did not play well there.
"He said, ‘Don’t worry about where to stay, we will sort everything out when you get here.’ It was pretty unusual for me because I like to be really organized, but I was at the point where I was like, 'I have nothing to lose now because I lost everything,'" King said.
For the first time in her life, King left her Southern California home and her family. Her parents had never wanted her to travel alone or unescorted, with her father traveling with her as a coach, and then later her mother, Karen, would accompany her to tournaments. But this time, King arrived in Florida alone, and it turned out to be just what she needed, along with Benhabiles’ motivation and instruction.
"I was there for four or five weeks. It was the first time I was in a tennis-only environment, away from my family. It was tough getting used to it, but I could feel things were a bit different. I started to be more responsible," King said.
"If I didn’t do well in Australia or if I didn’t feel well going there, then I probably would have stopped," she added. "I think the combination of going away from home, becoming my own person, kind of finding out what I wanted was really good for my tennis and also really good for my life. My relationship with my dad got better. I learned if you want to keep a relationship then you have to sacrifice for it. There is going to be something that annoys you about everybody, but it is worth it if the relationship is important, and it is because he is my dad."
She finished 2009 ranked No. 79 in singles, up 50 points from where she finished in 2008. And the people around King could see the good moving to Florida did her and the change that has come since working with Benhabiles and one of his coaches, Erwann Lerident, who travels with King to all her tournaments.
"When you don’t like something, you are not motivated. She is motivated now in all aspects," Ivana King said of her sister. "She lives in Florida now, and I think that is a very good move. A lot of times professionals have a very limited scope of what life is about. They have family, a coach, and that is it. I went to college, and you expand your horizons there at college, and I think when she moved to Florida that is where she expanded her horizons.
"For me, she was so good. I was fine with her turning pro (instead of going to college.) There are obstacles in whatever road you take," she added.
King felt Benhabiles understood a player and his or her needs extremely well, in addition to his knowledge of tennis, which made for a great coaching relationship, and all of his coaches, including Lerident, subscribe to his philosophy. She is now on the road with Lerident and trains with Benhabiles when she is home in Florida.
She has improved her forehand a lot, and her game continues to evolve. She is also trying to work on playing heavier and having more of an all-court game. Her serve is still a work in progress.
Last year, King really began to enjoy playing tennis for really the first time in her life, even before her title win at Wimbledon, which came about almost by accident.
She was scheduled to play doubles throughout the year with Anna-Lena Groenefeld of Germany. However, Groenefeld was injured during the year, forcing King to find another partner. She teamed up with Shvedova in June, and they played just two tournaments together before Wimbledon.
She never thought they would win Wimbledon in a draw that included the team of Serena and Venus Williams, but it happened, as they beat the No. 3, No. 5 and No. 6 seeds on the way to the final, where they defeated Vera Zvonareva and Elena Vesnina.
"At Wimbledon, no one expected it. We didn’t expect it. I think unless you are totally dominating the game, you have to be playing well, and you have to have a little bit of luck, and you have to take the chance when you get it," King said. "We could have lost second round. We could have lost third round. In the quarters, we could have lost. We were down a set and a break. But we didn’t, and we were just playing each moment, each match, having fun each match, and when we had the chance, we took it."
With a Grand Slam title under their belts, King still didn’t think they would win the US Open. She and Shvedova had won just one match since Wimbledon heading in. But the same thing started to happen.
"We just went out and played the same way, had fun, enjoyed each match. We could have lost second round. In the third round, we were down four match points. In the final, we were down match point," King said.
They lost the first set of the final to Liezel Huber and Nadia Petrova, came back to win the second, and then in the third, with King and Shvedova down, 5-4, the match was suspended due to rain. Benhabiles had flown in from Florida to see the final but had to go back before the match continued but not before suggesting some valuable advice for Lerident to pass on.
"He told Erwann that he didn’t think I was using my inside-in to pass down the alley on both sides. He thought I was going too much cross court," King said.
In the third set tiebreak, King hit a crucial shot down the line – a risk for her – that put them in the lead, which they never relinquished, as they won, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4).
King moved up to as high as No. 4 in the world in doubles and now sits at No. 5 – the highest-ranked American doubles player. She is No. 88 in singles, and with her versatility, U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez selected her to the team for the U.S.'s 2011 quarterfinal tie against Belgium Feb. 5-6. It is her first time on the Fed Cup team since the 2009 final against Italy.
As a whole, King is finally enjoying tennis, loving her life and is happy with the decisions she had made and where they have taken her.
"It was not until last year that I really started to enjoy tennis. This year, I love where I am now," she said. "Tarik believes in me even when I don’t believe in myself. I know nobody believed in me before. Now I know I made the right choice, and I am glad I made this choice. I am lucky to be doing what I am doing."