Vandeweghe makes a statement at Open
Aside from her blonde Rapunzel-esque hair and baby-blue eyes, Coco Vandeweghe is the spitting image of three-time Grand Slam singles champion Lindsay Davenport.
Vandeweghe has the same crushing serve and blazing groundstroke, not to mention similar long, muscular limbs that send opponent after opponent to the tennis gutter. Vandeweghe, a close family friend of Davenport, is even coached by the tennis star's former instructor, Robert Van't Hof.
A 6-foot-1 home-schooled senior who will turn 17 in December, Vandeweghe can crank up a 116 mph serve. That's 6 mph faster than the No. 2 player in the world, Jelena Jankovic, who happened to be Vandeweghe's opponent in the first round of her first appearance in the U.S. Open main draw in late August.
Though if anyone looked a bit queasy under the evening lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, it was Jankovic. Before the opening night crowd of 23,000, Vandeweghe uncoiled her long torso and sent a frozen rope crosscourt. Ace. 15-0, Vandeweghe. Jankovic flinched, then raised an eyebrow. Vandeweghe, a newly minted professional, thought to herself, "Holy God. Okay, I can do this."
"My coach came up to me afterwards and said, 'What a way to start the match -- just straight off acing the girl,'" Vandeweghe says.
Before she could tighten up, Vandeweghe sent three more winners deep into Jankovic's backcourt to go up, 1-0. Jankovic was stunned. The steely Serbian then double faulted twice, nearly opening up the court for Vandeweghe to break serve. But it was not to be -- just as quickly as Vandeweghe had won the first game, she dropped the second game.
Coco Vandeweghe's Stats
Hometown: Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
Biggest win: 2008 U.S. Open Junior title
Undaunted, Vandeweghe stormed back in her third service game to pull within 2-3. For a player ranked No. 512 in the world at the time, Vandeweghe wasn't just hanging in there -- she was sticking against the world's second-best player.
No longer a traveling coach, Van't Hof is now a full-time instructor at Palisades Tennis Club in Newport Beach, Calif., where Vandeweghe trains. But he couldn't resist watching his newest protégé make her mark, so he made a rare exception to leave Southern California for New York.
"CoCo did very well given the situation," Van't Hof says. "She kept her composure in front of all the people in the crowd. She showed a good serve. She was hitting 62 percent of her first serves, which is a great number for a player in her position." Despite an impressive opening, Vandeweghe couldn't hold onto her momentum, falling to Jankovic, 6-3, 6-1. Of course, the huge grin on Vandeweghe's face following the match told the real story -- she was happy with the experience regardless of the loss.
"Getting the number two in the world or playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium, that's better than anything I could ever ask for," she says. Following the match, Jankovic admitted, "I was playing an opponent I didn't know. She was hitting the ball so hard -- maybe harder than some of us [pros]." When a player like Jankovic compliments you on national television, you know you've arrived.
That opening-night performance was just an exciting preview of the next great American tennis player. But for all intents and purposes, it was also a warm-up act. Just like the first ace she dished up -- with a side of surprise -- Vandeweghe went on to upset three seeded players and capture her first U.S. Open Junior Championship, becoming the first American girl to win the junior draw in 13 years.
As if that's not enough, the Shakespearean rhetoric, "What's in a name?" is even more evidence Vandeweghe is destined for great things. CoCo, whose real name is Colleen, isn't nearly the picture of cute and fuzzy her nickname suggests. She's got a killer gleam in her eyes, and her Tiger-like fist pumps demonstrate she's a competitor to the bone.
Vandeweghe's catchy moniker is just one of many storied nicknames in her family's lore, starting with her famous uncle, Kiki (Ernest III) Vandeweghe. Her siblings have also followed suit -- CoCo's 18-year-old brother, Robert, goes by Beau, her 6-year-old brother, Mychal, goes by Crash, and her 5-year-old sister's real name is Honnie Jacquline. Let's just say her mother, Tauna, has a knack for names.
CoCo's made-for-stage handle isn't the only thing she's got going for her -- she also has an impressive and diverse athletic pedigree to draw on. Kiki played 13 years in the NBA and is now the general manager of the New Jersey Nets, while his dad -- CoCo's grandfather -- spent six years in the NBA. Tauna, meanwhile, was an Olympian in swimming and volleyball, and Beau is a freshman volleyball player at Pepperdine.
Certainly, CoCo is the product of this colorful athletic array. She just quit high school basketball, not to mention surfing, volleyball, soccer and wrestling, among other sports she played growing up. (But shhh, she still plays them when she's got a spare moment.)
Remarkably, in the cradle-to-racket farm system of junior tennis, Vandeweghe defied convention every step of the way. She first picked up a racket at 11 years old, five years and practically a lifetime later than most of her peers. She played high school tennis and basketball for La Costa Canyon (Carlsbad, Calif.) before withdrawing from both around six months ago to be home-schooled so she can have more time to train.
Take a Bow
Along with Vandeweghe, these five tennis phenoms are ready to step into the spotlight:
Brodsky, a home-schooled senior from Brooklyn, N.Y., competed in the U.S. Open after winning the 2008 USTA Girls' 18 National Championship. She also advanced to the quarterfinals at the 2007 Junior Wimbledon.
Rated No. 27 in the International Tennis Federation junior rankings as of press time, Burdette was No. 3 among Americans. In 2008, she reached the second round at both the ITF Juniors and Roland Garros Junior Championships. Burdette is a home-schooled senior based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Rated the No. 3 player in the Class of 2009 by TennisRecruiting.net, Cako advanced to the finals of the 2008 USTA International Spring Championships. She's a home-schooled senior based in Brier, Wash.
Rated the No. 2 player in the Class of 2009 by TennisRecruiting.net, Embree advanced to the finals of this year's Easter Bowl. She's a senior at Lely (Naples, Fla.).
Rated No. 2 in the International Tennis Federation junior rankings as of press time, Oudin reached the semis of the U.S. Open Junior Championship. A home-schooled junior based in Marietta, Ga., Oudin also won the ITF Juniors crown in 2008.
Vandeweghe went pro in March and already has sponsorships from the likes of Nike, though the International Tennis Federation restricts players from participating in the full professional schedule until they turn 18. As such, she was rated No. 16 overall and No. 2 among Americans in the ITF junior rankings as of press time. And after her U.S. Open win, she's perhaps the fastest-rising player on the list.
Like Vandeweghe, Davenport grew up in SoCal and followed a similar "normal" upbringing, graduating high school and eschewing the glamorous lifestyle of a successful professional athlete for much of her teens. But for all Davenport and Vandeweghe share -- height, a furious groundstroke, a background and a coach -- Vandeweghe has miles more athleticism and mobility, even if she's not yet a finished product.
"CoCo has a long way to go -- she's young,"Van't Hof says. "She needs to work on having less unforced errors and coming to the net more often."
Limitations aside, it's no stretch to say Vandeweghe can hit with all-time great Serena Williams, who beat Jankovic in the 2008 U.S. Open finals.
As Vandeweghe continues her ascent up the tennis ranks, she'll continue to look up to Davenport. Her house has long been a home away from home for Vandeweghe, who often puts in long hours traveling back and forth between San Diego and the Palisades Tennis Club. Davenport is also a close family friend, a rapport that began when Tauna used to baby-sit Davenport.
Evidently, Vandeweghe never lacked in strong, no-nonsense female role models. She may emulate Davenport's game, but she credits her mother as her inspiration -- no surprise considering Tauna was an Olympian in two sports.
CoCo is on the verge of challenging her mom's athletic career. Prior to this year's U.S. Open, Vandeweghe reached the final of August's 2008 USTA Girls' 18 National Championship in Berkeley, Calif., as well as the quarterfinals at March's $50,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Las Vegas. She's well on track to become a Fed Cup team member after accompanying the elite group to Moscow earlier this year as a practice player.
Despite all that previous success, Vandeweghe's breakout story really started at this year's U.S. Open Junior Championship. After acing her way to wins over the No. 11, 12 and 13 seeds, Vandeweghe reached the final. There she beat Venezuela's Gabriela Paz Franco in straight sets, 7-6 (3), 6-1, completing her title run without dropping a single set in six matches. Even better, Vandeweghe displayed the tendency of finishing off games with an ace, a habit she doesn't plan on breaking anytime soon.
"I'm like on cloud nine right now," she said after the win. "This is my first junior tournament win in the ITF, and to do it at the U.S. Open is an even greater achievement for me."
Vandeweghe's win came a mere 16 years after Davenport won the junior title at the 1992 U.S. Open as a 16-year-old. Coincidence? Nah.
Lindsey Dolich covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com.
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