Making Room for Coco Vandeweghe

Dec. 3, 2010

It’s the most wonderful time of the year in tennis: The off-season. Sure, it lacks excitement. It’s quiet. The pressure’s off. There’s no drama. No injuries. No winners. No losers. Just what an off-season should be. This short break in the action provides an opportunity to look back at 2010—sort of a rewind and review.

When I was skimming through my 2010 tournament notes, I noticed a few pages that were marked with an asterisk (my way of finding the important stuff, or stuff that seemed important at the time). I stumbled upon one marked page with Coco Vandeweghe’s name on it–underlined. I have to admit, Coco’s name didn’t exactly leap off the page. It was more like a reminder for 2011, or a note to self: Keep an eye on this one.

I’m keeping an eye on Coco Vandeweghe for good reason. There’s plenty of room in American tennis for a newcomer. Despite some gutsy Fed Cup performances, and a much talked about 2009 U.S. Open run, Melanie Oudin hasn’t (yet) materialized into the next great American star. Bethanie Mattek-Sands has also been a clutch player in Fed Cup, and is now the third highest ranked American at No. 59, (she rose 70 points since 2009), but is still nowhere near the top 20. And what about Venus and Serena Williams? File them under TBD for now.

Coco Vandeweghe had already made her mark in tennis as a junior, winning the 2008 girls U.S. Open, but most people didn’t begin to notice Coco until this summer at the Mercury Insurance Open, when the 18-year-old Californian upset world No. 2 Vera Zvonareva (as a qualifier). She made it to the quarterfinals, only to lose a close match against Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Since this summer, Coco has been slowly and quietly making a name for herself.

At the end of September, Coco entered the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo as a qualifier. She went on to defeat five top 100 players en route to the semifinals: Julia Goerges, Tathiana Garbin, Jarmila Groth, Klara Zakopalova, and Aravane Rezai.

In November, Coco received the opportunity of a lifetime after both Venus and Serena Williams backed out of the Fed Cup final due to injury. U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez chose Coco as a last-minute second singles player for the final vs. Italy. Coco was the first player since 1995 to make their Fed Cup debut in a final. Despite the risky decision, Fernandez stood by her choice.
“I decided with Coco, with her height, her serve, her ability to really hit the ball up here, that’s a good choice to start the day,” said Fernandez.

But just about everyone knew that the US team was the underdog going into the final against Italy, and needed some big guns to pull off a win. When Coco stepped onto the court in the opening rubber, it was clear that the 6’1” American was in over her head. She had a few good rallies, but Coco’s “rookie” nerves and her lack of experience resulted in two tearful losses in two days. It was simply too much, too soon.

But when it comes to those experiences, most players would agree that you learn more from your losses than your wins.

Coco Vandeweghe’s rise in the rankings has been a more positive experience. She began 2010 at No. 354, and went on to achieve a career high ranking of No. 113 in October. After ending the year at No. 117, she is poised to crack the top 100 by early 2011.

When it comes to skills, Coco has a big serve, good height (which can’t hurt her serve), and has powerful ground strokes to set up long baseline rallies. But admittedly, she needs to work on her movement and footwork in order to improve her game. Coco has tremendous untapped potential, but hasn’t been able to put it all together in one season—yet.

Luckily, Coco Vandeweghe will be getting an early start on the 2011 season. She was chosen as one of eight men and eight women to compete at the USTA’s 2010 Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs in Atlanta, December 17-19. Vandeweghe won last year’s wild card playoff, which earned her a spot into the main draw of the 2010 Australian Open.

I expect continued improvement from Coco Vandeweghe in 2011 as she develops her game as well as her confidence. But for now, she might have to be known as Coco Vande-wait-and-see.

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