MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 20: Coco Vandeweghe of the United States celebrates winning her third round match against Eugenie Bouchard of Canada on day five of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 20, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Michael Steinberger: CoCo Vandeweghe Is No Shrinking Violet

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and the Williams sisters turned this year’s Australian Open into an extended version of Old Timers' Day. However, younger players weren’t entirely eclipsed. Coco Vandeweghe, the 25-year-old American firebrand, took out a murderer’s row of opponentsRoberta Vinci, Genie Bouchard, Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruzato reach the semifinals, where she fell to Venus Williams in three sets. It wasn’t just all the winning she did that made her semifinal run so impressive; it was how she won. Vandeweghe played with a degree of aggression that was as enthralling to watch as it was risky to execute. There was something pugilistic about ither concussive groundstrokes and huge serves landed more like punches than shots. To say that she knocked both Kerber and Muguzura out of the tournament was almost literally true (she annihilated Kerber, the defending champion and world number one, 6-2 6-3, in the fourth round and crushed Muguruza 6-4 6-0 in the quarters). A few years ago, the New York Observer called the 6ft 1in Vandeweghe the Ronda Rousey of tennis. In Melbourne, she lived up to that billing, and she also persuaded a lot of skeptics that she has the chops to win slams.

Last week, Vandeweghe was in Maui for a Fed Cup match, where she led the US team past a national anthem controversy and on to a 4-0 victory over Germany. A few days before the tie began, I spoke with her by phone. As you may have noticed if you saw any of her matches in Australia, Vandeweghe is not a shrinking violet. Her brash personality has drawn commentary and criticism over the years (during the on-court interview following her quarterfinal win over Muguruza at the Australian, she alluded to some pre-match gastrointestinal distress, which was TMI even for those of us who generally enjoy her unplugged stylings). But she gives a good interviewshe’s frank, thoughtful, and an engaging conversationalist.

Two weeks on from the Australian, she was still beating herself up a little over the semifinal loss to Williams. Vandeweghe won the first set in a tiebreaker, but dropped the next two 6-2 6-3. She told me that the match turned when Williams began mixing up the placement of her serves a bit more. Williams had served mostly into the body during the first set; starting in the second, she began trying to take her fellow American out wide, and Vandeweghe didn’t respond as quickly as she should have. “I was slow to adjust, and that was a glaring mistake,” she said. She went on to explain that the problem was not that she failed to recognize what Williams was doing; it is that she was too stubborn to adapt. “I was set on the game plan we had taking me through the finish line, and I wasn’t willing to adjust,” she said.

But that tactical blunder aside, she was understandably delighted with her performance in Melbourne, which vaulted her into the top 20 for the first time. When I asked her to describe how it felt, she gave a one-word answer: “Validated.” It was proof that her quarterfinal run at Wimbledon in 2015 was no fluke, and it was also affirmation that good things can happen when she puts in the work. Vandeweghe told me that the foundation for her stampede through the Australian draw was the dismal end to her 2016 season. After losing in the first round of the US Open to Naomi Osaka, she headed to Asia, where her woes continued. She lost in the second round in Tokyo, then in the first round in both Wuhan and Beijing. At that same point, she and her team (she is coached by Craig Kardon) decided to pack it in. Vandeweghe doesn’t especially enjoy being on the road“I get homesick; that’s probably my biggest pitfall”and her poor play on the Asian swing made the decision an easy one. She took a vacation and then threw herself into prepping for 2017. What she found gratifying and encouraging was that, even as the hours of training piled up, she kept her focus. A lack of sustained focus has been one of the things that has held her back, and the fact that she was returning to the court every morning enthusiastic and dialed in was a positive sign.

Focus was clearly not a problem for her in Melbourne. The challenge now is to build on her result there. Vandeweghe told me one of her goals for 2017 was to reach the quarters at a slam other than Wimbledon; with that box now checked off, the next step is obviously to reach the final of a major or, better yet, to win one. By her own admission, it is probably not going to happen in Paris, where she has yet to make it past the second round. “It is no secret that red clay is not my favorite,” she told me. Interestingly, she said the problem is not so much her game as it is her mind. “My heavy ball would do well on red clay,” she explained. “I think I can play on it. But I can’t find a way to have fun on clay. I have no joy playing on red clay. I need to have fun to play tennis. And I haven’t found a fun style that works on red clay, where I’ve found that on other surfaces.” Assuming she doesn’t find her happy place on red clay between now and late May, it’s more likely that her next big breakthrough will come at Wimbledon or the US Open.

Vandeweghe told me she believes now that she can win majors. “I think I can do it,” she said. “I have beaten the people to be able to do it. I don’t see a problem in taking that next step.” She boasts an athletic pedigree that is probably unmatched by anyone else in professional tennis. Both her grandfather and her uncle played in the NBA, and her mother was an Olympic swimmer. But Vandeweghe said that contrary to what people might assume, this rich athletic lineage has never been a burden for her. “My family didn’t put any pressure on me,” she said. “I was my own bearer of bad news, almost to a point of too much. I’m my biggest critic.” Even though she still smashes the occasional racket, she said that she is learning to be less hard on herself (if not her equipment). “I had certain expectations,” she said, “and I feel like I have the tools now to reach those expectations.”

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