By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
SAN DIEGO -- Earlier this year, CoCo Vandeweghe decided it was time for a change.
Her potential, talent and power had been highly touted for several years, but the 18-year-old Californian with the prodigious athletic genes still had not had a real breakthrough in her still-young professional career.
She had been training at home in Southern California with Robert Van’t Hof, former coach of her good friend Lindsay Davenport, but decided that she needed something different. After consulting with her agent, Vandeweghe made the big decision to give a jolt to her training regime and train part-time with Van’t Hof and part-time with Tom Gullikson at the USTA Player Development Headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla.
After strong results on the WTA Tour this summer and fall, it seems like a very wise choice, as she won back-to-back titles on the USTA Pro Circuit in May and June and then defeated current world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva on her way to the quarterfinals at the Mercury Insurance Open on the Olympus US Open Series this summer in San Diego. She followed that up with a successful fall season in Asia, including advancing to the quarterfinals in Tokyo and reaching a career-high ranking of No. 113 in October.
"I had a great tournament in La Costa (the Mercury Insurance Open), and in Asia, I had two great results over there," she said. "I won my first two Challengers in a row before all that, which kind of kick-started me having a pretty good summer into a good winter."
Her outstanding play the second half of the season then earned her a selection to the U.S. team for the 2010 Fed Cup Final against Italy this weekend in San Diego for her first time as an official member of the team. At Friday's draw, Captain Mary Joe Fernandez announced that Vandeweghe will be playing at the No. 2 singles position for the U.S. team. She will take on Italy's No. 1 player, Francesca Schiavone, in the opening match on Saturday.
She says she is honored to have been chosen to represent her country and knows well the ins and outs of Fed Cup, having traveled with the team to two previous ties over the past two years as a practice partner, including Fernandez’s first tie as U.S. Fed Cup captain in Surprise, Ariz., last year.
"It was about two days after I got home from Asia," Vandeweghe said of when she received the news from Fernandez. "I was driving in my car, and I answered the phone. It was Mary Joe, and she gave me the great news about being chosen to be on the team. I was ecstatic, and I immediately said yes. I am more than happy to come out and be part of this final, and hopefully we can beat Italy this time."
The U.S. lost to Italy 4-0 in last year’s final in Reggio Calabria, Italy, and this year is trying to avenge that defeat in San Diego, near Vandeweghe’s home and near the site where she had such a great run at the Mercury Insurance Open.
But she might not be here if she had not chosen to shake up her training after a slow start to 2010 that featured a bunch of qualifying and first-round losses. She has been very pleased with her choice, although it has meant more time away from friends and family while she is training in Boca Raton. To advance her career and keep chasing her goals, however, she is more than willing to make the sacrifice.
"It has been a tough year and a great year for me. The struggles in the beginning of the year forced me to going into a more sound, structured way of training than before, so that is the big difference that has helped me in my game," Vandeweghe said. "I decided I needed a little bit of a more structured environment, where I would have practices set, matches set every single day routine-wise, and I found that at the USTA, and it has been working out pretty well for me.
"I was training only in California at home, and I talked a little to my agent about it, and he gave me two choices of where I could go to get that environment. Then he said Tom really wanted to work with me, and the USTA really wanted to help me out, and I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’"
When she decides she wants to come back home to California between traveling to tournaments, Gullikson has been very flexible, as well, coming to meet her and train at the USTA’s training center in Carson, Calif., instead of Boca. She is also still training with Van’t Hof about 50 percent of the time (all when she is in California).
At 6-foot-1, Vandeweghe plays a power game with a first serve that she can hit faster than 110 mph regularly with strong groundstrokes. She has made some adjustments with her new training regime, including changing the way she utilizes that great power.
"I think it is the consistency aspect of my power game that has gotten a lot better," she said. "Instead of going for that 100-percent ball or the mock-10 shot, we call it, sometimes I go for more of a 60-percent ball that is a little bit heavier, has more margin over the net, that works just as effectively and is way more consistent."
Vandeweghe's style makes her a great addition to the Fed Cup team because it contrasts well with that of the other team members in Melanie Oudin, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Liezel Huber to give the Italian team a variety of different looks.
And to Fernandez, whether a player is there as an official team member or a practice partner, she is part of the U.S. Fed Cup team and treated that way.
"I think one thing that stands out for me is that my first Fed Cup as captain in Arizona had Melanie for the first time, and CoCo was there," Fernandez said. "I don't really separate my young ones from my other ones because my whole team is young. CoCo was the ultimate team player that week. She did whatever was asked of her. If we needed her to kick more serve, she kicked more serve. If we needed her to serve and volley, she served and volleyed. If we needed her to warm up 10 players, she’d do it.
"So that really stood out -- that she was prepared to do whatever it took to help the team. I think having Melanie break through and excel has really motivated players, like CoCo and a lot of other young players, who have really started to do well and play well and make that next move. CoCo has all the ingredients, and she’s got game."
Vandeweghe’s ingredients started with her genetics, and she was a talented multi-sport athlete until her early teens. Her grandfather, Ernie Vandeweghe, played in the NBA, including for the New York Knicks, and her uncle Kiki Vandeweghe is also a former NBA player, as well as former general manager of the Denver Nuggets and former general manager and head coach of the New Jersey Nets.
Her mother, Tauna Vandeweghe, was an Olympian in swimming in 1976 and also competed in volleyball in the 1984 Olympics.
CoCo did not start playing tennis until the relatively late age of 11 and stayed a multi-sport athlete until 13, when she stopped playing basketball. She thinks it was beneficial for her to have that variety in her life as a child.
"My grandfather didn’t want me to play basketball. He wanted me to play golf because he liked playing golf," she said. "But he was the one who always helped me out in basketball. He taught me all the trick shots and even dirty, cheap shots, as well, that I could do. I still play with my older brother sometimes for fun.
"No one else plays tennis. My brother got me started into tennis. He quit, but he still thinks he can beat me," she added of her family. "I am glad that I had different sports and I was not solely focused on tennis at such a young age. Sometimes I think that can be a problem in any sport. At 13, I was still not sure I wanted to solely focus on tennis or still play basketball."
Vandeweghe is still tweaking and improving her game and adjusting to playing on the WTA Tour, having played mostly Circuit events in 2009 after winning the US Open girls’ singles title in 2008. She had a tough first-round loss at the US Open and at one tournament in Asia in the fall but received some great advice from Davenport.
"I was playing three tournaments (in Asia), and the second tournament did not go as well, and I said, ‘Lindsay, how do I keep myself motivated for these three long weeks?"’ Vandeweghe said. "She said you have to have that one day when you have fun and go sight-seeing or do something like that, and then when you get to the new facility, don’t nitpick at the little things. Look at the big picture, get used to the surroundings and the things you can control. She has been a really great help for me there."
For this weekend, Vandeweghe is focused on doing whatever she can to help the U.S. win its first Fed Cup title since 2000. The rest of the team is very happy she is here, and Huber thinks with her talent, things are only going to get better for the 18-year-old.
"We all know CoCo’s got game. We saw it in San Diego. And she's had a great run, not just in San Diego, but we got to spend some time in Tokyo," Huber, 34, said. "We can joke with each other, and we can take it. I think it's cool when somebody a lot, lot younger than you can dish it out, also.
"I kind of, in myself, see CoCo a little bit when I was younger. But Coco is so much better," she added. "And CoCo has, if you will, matured a little bit later than I thought. But I knew that was going to come. Sometimes you have to go through the tough times to get to the good times. CoCo is now almost in the top 100. Hopefully next year, we’ll sit here, and CoCo is for sure in the top 50. I just think she has the all-round game."