Longtime followers of the game were overjoyed by the impact of players from the U.S. at the recently completed Australian Open. Three American women were among the four semifinalists. The title round contest featured the renowned Williams sisters, with Serena toppling Venus as anticipated, collecting a 23rd Grand Slam championship in the process. Their legion of admirers celebrated that moment effusively, recognizing the enduring greatness of these two commendable champions.
But to many astute observers, it was the showing of 25-year-old CoCo Vandeweghe—born in New York, residing in California, and determined to show the world that she has the propensity to eventually make it to the top of the international ladder—that fired the imagination most powerfully. Never before had Vandeweghe gone as far as the penultimate round at a major. She was ousted by an inspired Venus Williams despite claiming the opening set, but that setback could not obscure the way she performed across the fortnight. Vandeweghe knocked out the defending champion and world No. 1 Angelique Kerber and ousted French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, obliterating each of those established stars comprehensively in straight sets. Her stirring run in Melbourne carried Vandeweghe up to a career high of No. 20 in the world, setting the stage for a groundbreaking season that could redefine this highly charged player across the board.
As is the case with all of the players who live at or near the upper regions of the sport, Vandeweghe has a team that works for her and caters to all her professional requirements, and the key member of that contingent is
Craig Kardon. Kardon played on the ATP World Tour in the 1980's before establishing himself in the field of coaching. He was by Martina Navratilova's side in that role when the towering left-hander secured her ninth singles title on the lawns of the All England Club at Wimbledon in 1990, taking her 18th and last major with Kardon in her corner. He went on to work with standouts like Lindsay Davenport and Mary Pierce. He coached Lisa Raymond, Shahar Peer and Ze Zhang. His range of experience is far reaching.
I spoke with Kardon by telephone only a few days after he returned from Melbourne, and asked how he first came to join forces with Vandeweghe in 2015? He replied, "I was contacted by CoCo's agent John Tobias probably a couple of weeks before the French Open that year. He said she might be looking for somebody [to coach her] and asked if I was available. I said yes. But there was a time constraint. She was at the French with no coach. But since I was being considered and she had not made a decision about a coach, I just bought a ticket to France and decided I would go over there. I basically took a chance and went there without her approval, but we started working at that French Open of 2015."
How did it evolve from that juncture over the rest of 2015, through the following year, and on into this season? Kardon answers, "I knew CoCo a little bit from World TeamTennis so we were already familiar with each other. After the French Open we went to the grass courts in Great Britain and she had a good grass court season and then she did well obviously at Wimbledon [reaching the quarterfinals]. So she kind of bought in pretty quickly to my coaching style once we got to the grass. Her other coach was more of a disciplinarian. I am more open and I listen a lot. It is a two way conversation. I get feedback and base my tactics and strategies and set up practices according to the feedback. CoCo is different. You have to be able to adjust and get the most out of your player."
We shifted to the subject of Vandeweghe's temperament. Kardon said, "She is very confident and that is not to be confused with cocky. She is just very confident in her abilities."
I asked if fans and reporters could misconstrue the way Vandeweghe conducts herself and reach the conclusion that she is coming across as cocky?
"She definitely does sometimes," asserts Kardon, "but that is not really who she is. She is confident and wants people to know that she is confident. That is a characteristic trait that helps her to win. It is her belief in herself."
Having veered off topic slightly, it was time to steer the interview back to 2015, and how Kardon felt about the progress he had made with his pupil during their first half-season together. Vandeweghe had concluded 2014 at No. 40 and moved to No. 37 at the end of the following year. Did she advance as far as she could have that season?
" No," answers Kardon. "I felt like she did what she was capable of doing on the grass and pretty much equalled her ranking of the year before but but she didn't do much on the Asian swing and lost in the second round of the U.S. Open. She had a lackluster hard court performance over that summer. Her results were spotty after Wimbledon. She had some good results here and there but it was less than she was capable of."
Having wrapped up that 2015 campaign reasonably well, was it time for Kardon to work out a deal for 2016? " Yes,", he replied. "We worked out a deal. She had an injury going into that year so her pre-season training probably wasn't as good as it should have been.. So she goes to Australia in 16' and loses three first round matches. We both were worried.. She was working hard and we were getting along but the bottom line that drives the business is success."
Vandeweghe managed to get some good results in places like Dubai and Doha. Kardon says, "That was the start of something to build on for the rest of 2016. She did well in Indian Wells and Miami. I then forced her to play a couple of clay court tournaments that she didn't want to play. The purpose of that was that she needed to play more matches on clay to prepare her for the grass court season. That was what I had done with Martina Navratilova in the first couple of years we worked together and I think it really helped. CoCo's favorite surface is obviously not red clay so that part of the equation is still a work in progress. But I think CoCo playing on clay in 2016 that way and having a lot of practice forced her into a little more discipline in her practices. She won her first round match at the French and then had a couple of match points in the second round. It was one of the best matches I have seen her play on clay."
Kardon believes that grooming ground on the dirt was invaluable to Vandeweghe as she shifted to the lawns. As he puts it, "She played a ton of matches on the grass. She had a great Birmingham making the semis, and she won 's-Hertogenbosch and then got to the round of 16 at Wimbledon. Then we go to Stanford and she sprains her ankle pretty badly. She played the Olympics after that which was maybe too soon, but she really wanted to play there. After that, she basically was done. She did not play well at the U.S. Open and didn't win a match in Asia. The motivation just wasn't there so all of us on her team sat down at the end of the 2016 season: her physio Julian Romero and my friend Chris Anstey, an ex-basketball player who is a consultant helping me and talking to her., He played for the Mavericks. I have known him for twenty years. He actually played in the juniors with Philippoussis. He came on board for the clay court season and at the U.S. Open. He joins us part time but is a real part of the team."
The Vandeweghe team had "a great pre-season training block", as Kardon explains it. He continues, "CoCo after Hopman Cup this year won a match in Sydney in the first round against Vesnina in the second round. She played a good first set and then Vesnina had to default [at 4-0 down in the second set.] But CoCo was playing great. She played Duan from China in the next round and didn't feel like she was prepared. She had a blowup so CoCo, myself, Chris and Julian had a serious conversation about how she was going to handle herself mentally and how the whole team can better prepare CoCo. We were looking at ourselves to figure out how we could get better, and she had to be responsible for keeping her emotions under control."
The events leading up to the Australian Open clearly bolstered Vandeweghe's belief in herself and her understanding of what it would take to flourish on the tennis court. It was no accident that she turned that tournament into a major showcase for her talent and temerity. As Kardon recalls, "CoCo had a couple of scares in the first and second rounds of the Australian Open. She had to dig deep with herself and fight. She was sick to her stomach and was throwing up against Roberta Vinci after winning the first set and going down a break in the second. She gutted it out and then she played Pauline Parmentier in the second round. It got tight and this girl played really well but CoCo gutted that one out as well."
Next up on the agenda for Vandeweghe was a very impressive Eugenie Bouchard. The Canadian backcourt stylist was playing some of her most inspired tennis since reaching two semifinals and one final at the majors in 2014 and finishing that season entrenched in the top ten. Bouchard was largely better from the baseline than Vendeweghe. The American had to battle her way out of some tight corners before prevailing in one of the best women's matches of the tournament. In the end, Vandeweghe prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 after trailing 4-2 in a tense final set.
As Kardon recollects, "I prepared CoCo for that match by saying she should expect Genie to play her best tennis, like a semifinalist type level. CoCo has practiced with her and knows what to expect. This is where her confidence comes into play. Genie didn't crack. CoCo didn't crack. I just think CoCo had that belief that she was going to hang in there and see what happens. Down a break in the final set, CoCo raised her game and Genie made a couple of mistakes at the end that cost her the match. Winning that match gave CoCo more confidence and allowed her to play with freedom. She had now knocked off three players and had struggled but still came through. Genie played well but it was all up to CoCo."
Having ousted Bouchard in that pendulum swinging encounter, Vandeweghe took on the defending champion Kerber and won comfortably in straight sets, overpowering her German adversary 6-2, 6-3. As Kardon explains, "She had played Kerber before and CoCo had a solid game plan. Kerber has a weak serve so CoCo just pounded it. CoCo returns well and likes returning against lefties. CoCo being able to produce that kind of tennis didn't surprise me but it gave her a lot of confidence. Who knows what CoCo is capable of? I told her not to put a ceiling on what she can do. You have to give the player the confidence as a coach that you believe in them as much as they believe in themselves. And with CoCo, that belief is pretty high."
After the triumph over Kerber, Vandeweghe collided with Muguruza, seeded seventh and looking to reignite her game again. Vandeweghe refused to permit Muguruza to find her range. As Kardon reflects, "She had played Muguruza in Cincinnati last year. In that match CoCo was up a break in the first set and made some dumb mistakes and got mad at herself. She knew she was beating Muguruza from the baseline. But the big thing with Muguruza is that if she serves well it is tough to beat her because she can hold pretty easily and stay tight on the baseline. But once you get the serve back and CoCo is rallying, I think CoCo's ball right now is as big as anybody's. Once the ball was in play, CoCo could feel like she was the better player. At the Australian Open, CoCo didn't allow Muguruza to do much. She returned better and Muguruza didn't know which way to turn. CoCo moves a lot better than Muguruza, and she is just a different player than she was six to eight months ago. CoCo just overpowered Muguruza. A lot of players count on CoCo exploding or getting mad at herself but now after proving that she can keep it together at this level she is going to be tougher than ever to beat."
In her first appearance ever in a semifinal at a major tennis tournament, Vandeweghe took the first set in a tie-break over Venus Williams but was ultimately beaten in three hard fought sets. In my view, she was carried away with demonstrating that no one in women's tennis can hit a ball harder than she can. Over the last couple of sets, Vandeweghe gave away too many points with errors born of ultra aggression. That was how I felt. What was Kardon's assessment?
"She knows how to play Venus. CoCo was a little surprised at some of the shots Venus defended extremely well. CoCo wasn't prepared for that. What worked for her in the first set CoCo continued to do, but Venus was on to it. And CoCo knew Venus was on to it but she was late in changing her strategy and then she was rushed. She felt like she had to do too much to win a point. In hindsight, Venus played a great match. CoCo didn't play poorly but the big thing with that match was the return of serve. CoCo had about 13 break point opportunities and converted only one or two. Venus served amazingly and sometimes CoCo pressed a little bit while other times she didn't do enough. She was a little bit indecisive about how much to commit on some of those break points."
The loss stung hard, and understandably so. Many experienced observers believed Vandeweghe was going to defeat Williams. "She was very disappointed and very angry after the match," says Kardon, "but it didn't last long. I told her I was really proud of her and she played a great match. Days later when we got back we talked about it and she is more aware of what happened and what to do next time she plays Venus. We both looked at film of the match individually. We review film sometimes and discuss strategy, but not too much. CoCo is a player who doesn't want too much information, but moving forward she may want more information."
As Kardon examines the future of CoCo Vandeweghe, he is upbeat. "More and more," he concludes, "she wants it. She has got new responsibilities and we have changed some things to ask a little bit more of her on and off the court fitness wise, training wise and just in terms of stepping it up. I will tell you this: she is stronger, faster, and more powerful than she has ever been. She is willing to work even more and that is good news. I am rooting for her. She can go a lot higher. If she continues on this path, I think CoCo will be in the top ten pretty soon."