NEW YORK—From the waist up, Coco Vandeweghe was the picture of calm. She was sitting back in her sideline chair, with her eyes closed, in an attempt to meditate. But the lower half of her body gave her away. Her legs were bobbing up and down in constant, manic, nervous motion.
To be fair, the middle of a jam-packed Arthur Ashe Stadium, with its sound system pumping out dance music at top volume, is not the easiest place to meditate. And this wasn’t the easiest time to try it, either. Vandeweghe was about to serve for the match at 5-4 in the third set against one of her longtime nemeses, Agnieszka Radwanska. If she could eke out one more hold, she would reach the fourth round, and the second week, at her home Grand Slam for the first time.
Vandeweghe’s performance at the Open over the years had been an obvious source of frustration. She loves nothing more than playing for her country, and in front of her home fans, and she has been the driving force behind the U.S. Fed Cup team’s run to the 2017 final, which will be played against Belarus in November.
But playing in her native New York, it seemed, was a little too close to home for her to relax and play her best. Nine years ago, as an unheralded 16-year-old, Vandeweghe was granted a wild card into the US Open girls’ event, and she proceeded to tear through the draw and win the tournament. But after that auspicious, head-turning debut, Vandeweghe had never conquered her hometown again. In eight tries as an adult she was 4-8, and had failed to get out of the second round even once. The Open, Vandeweghe said earlier this year, felt like one Slam too many each year. By the time it came around in August, she was a little burnt out, beat up and over-tennised.
At first, she appeared to be all of those things again this year. Vandeweghe lost the first set of her first-round match to Alison Riske, and spent almost as much time dueling with the chair umpire as she did her opponent. But Vandeweghe made it through in three and, true to form, got better as the stage got bigger. She won her second-rounder, over Ons Jabeur, in a night match in Ashe. This time, instead of tightening up in front of the home folks, this New York Knicks fan—her uncle, Kiki, played for the team for three years—enlisted the Ashe crowd in her cause.
“It’s hard to beat a New York crowd when they’re for you,” Vandeweghe said after downing Jabeur. “It’s a lot to go against. That’s what I tried to make happen out there.”
Vandeweghe made it happen again when she played Radwanska, and it was enough to buoy her against a player who poses, frankly, a nightmare matchup for her. Where Vandeweghe tries to overpower her opponents with straightforward power hitting, Radwanska uses her array of angles, spins and speeds to force her opponents to cover all four corners of the court. Coco vs. Aga constitutes one of the game’s most extreme contrasts of personalities and styles; sometimes you wonder if they’re playing the same sport.
“She makes you hit from so many uncomfortable positions,” Vandeweghe said of Radwanska, “and makes you hit so many balls.”
Radwanska was 5-1 against Vandeweghe coming into this one, and last month she completely defused her in a 6-3, 6-2 drubbing in Toronto. From the start in New York, though, this was a different, more stubborn Vandeweghe. She wasn’t perfect. Blazing winners, as always, were followed by blazing misses—Vandeweghe littered up the stat sheet with 49 winners and 54 errors; in both cases, that was twice as many as Radwanska. But this time Vandeweghe didn’t let the misses weigh on her psyche, and did’t let the three hours spent chasing down Radwanska’s diabolical finesse shots weigh on her body. Vandeweghe appears to be as fit as she has ever been.
In the third set, Vandeweghe urged herself to play her game—”Stop pushing!” she screamed. It was the right advice. With Radwanska serving at 3-3, Vandeweghe unloaded on a forehand on break point for a winner. Serving at 4-3, Vandeweghe put together her best game of the match for an easy hold.
Finally, after trying to meditate her way through the changeover, Vandeweghe stepped up to serve for the match. At first, she panicked. On the first point, she came in on a prayer of a backhand approach and was passed. At 15-15, she smothered a forehand into the net. But then, with shouts of “USA!” drifting down from the upper seats, Vandeweghe steadied herself and let her best shot, her serve, take over. She fired two aces and a service winner on match point for the 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 win.
Vandweghe’s victory was greeted with a powerful roar, and she thanked the fans for their help.
“It’s all about you guys,” she said.
She had been waiting 10 years to hear that roar. She was, finally, a star at home, in New York.
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