Just after 11:30 a.m. on Stadium Four at the Indian Wells Garden, 24-year-old Coco Vandeweghe lined up to serve from the south end of the court at 3-2. Vandeweghe had just broken the serve of 16th-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova. As usual in the desert, it was a dry, warm day, the temperature tipping into the 80s with just enough cloud cover to make the conditions superb.
Kuznetsova, a two-Grand Slam singles champion, is 30 years old – but of course, a well-traveled, world-weary 30. To think that when Kuznetsova won her first major, the 2004 US Open, Barack Obama had yet to be elected to the Senate. But here Kuznetsova was, more than a decade later, showing her distinct brand of physical tennis. Her geographic journey had also been so visible – the brooding, dogged Russian from St. Petersburg, mixed with the forceful grinder she’d learned to be in Spain. This was one seasoned competitor.
As Kuznetsova’s age demonstrated, numbers could take you in all directions. Consider Vandeweghe’s ranking. Just over a year ago, she’d reached a career-high of 32. Now she was 38 – but clearly, a much better player, far more consistent and aware of how to deploy her weapons. Just prior to last year’s grasscourt season, she’d hired a new coach, Craig Kardon (former coach of Martina Navratilova and many other ATP and WTA players). Soon after, she’d had the best Slam of her career, reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
A long game ensued. Could Vandeweghe consolidate? Would Kuznetsova recover? At last, Vandeweghe held. At 4-3, she held again, this time quite easily, closing it out at 15 with a 103 mph wide ace.
Though at opposite ends of their careers – amazing how much difference six years makes in tennis – Kuznetsova and Vandeweghe had several stylistic similarities. There had always been a civil war within Kuznetsova, a classic one faced by many tennis players: consistency versus aggression. Among the Russians, perhaps only Nadia Petrova could match Kuznetsova in the versatility department. Alas, so often, Kuznetsova’s matches had been determined by a blazing flock of puzzling decisions and errors. But then again, there had been those Grand Slam triumphs in New York and at the 2009 French Open.
Vandeweghe is also learning the craft of harnessing. All her life, she has been told what a superb athlete is, a function of having a mother who competed in the Olympics, an uncle who was an NBA star and a grandfather who also enjoyed an excellent NBA career. Surely athletic excellence was in the genes, right? But it has taken a while for Vanweghe to fully absorb that no one comes out of the womb knowing how to be a great tennis player.
Of course she’s known this a little bit for a long time. The distinct Vandeweghe surface motion (similar a bit to Samantha Stosur’s deadly kick) was taught to her in depth throughout her youth by Guy Fritz (Taylor’s father) and is one of the best in women’s tennis. The forehand is also lethal, particularly when struck inside-out. On the backhand, though, Vandeweghe’s stroke is less the problem than intermittent patches of sluggish footwork that cause her to reach, slap and strike the ball poorly. These days, you can see her striving to improve everything from shot selection to footwork to conduct.
Serving at 3-5, Kuznetsova showed off spectrum of skills, ending points with a deft crosscourt backhand volley, a harsh crosscourt forehand and a well-carved, deep backhand slice that elicited an error.
Vandeweghe began the 5-4 game with a doublefault, but then rallied strong, closing out the game and set at 30. She started the second set with a service break – and then came probably the most important game of the match.
Serving up a set and a break is the time to slowly tighten the noose. Serving at 1-0, 40-30, Vandeweghe doublefaulted and soon faced a break point. The gritty, slow hardcourts suggested that in time the veteran would turn the tables. But Vandeweghe persevered, even fighting off one break point with an adventurous serve-and-volley play (it took two volleys, but Kuznetsova missed a passing shot). In time, she held for 2-0.
Kuznetsova at this point wasn’t so much broken down as unable to penetrate Vandeweghe. Vandeweghe’s subsequent service games were uneventful, and soon Kuznetsova was serving again at 3-5. The Russian reached 40-15 – usually the point where Vandeweghe would succumb. But in this case, Vandeweghe showed off her improvement, taking a pair of returns early, forcing Kuznetsova into errors to level the game. It was becoming clear now that all along, Vandeweghe had been the one controlling the real estate of the court, Vandeweghe dictating the flow of the points. Kuznetsova, as had often been the case in a rather beguiling way, had been more witness than progenitor. Though Kuznetsova survived one match point, on the second, Vandeweghe ripped a crosscourt backhand return for a winner.
“She kept attacking,” said Kardon. “I liked the way she was always taking the ball on the rise.”
“Svetlana makes your beat her,” said Vandeweghe.
Once upon a time, this was the proposed headline for the Vandeweghe story: A star is born, brightly screaming across the sky. But that was the old Coco. The new headline: players are made, toothpick by toothpick.