For most tennis players, beating the top seed at a Grand Slam tournament is a pretty big deal. Pulling off a major upset usually brings out a mix of shock, relief, elation, joy, thankfulness—and a little more shock. By the time a player has fallen over, stood up, put her hands over her face, stared bug-eyed at her coaches and finally jogged to the net, she has run the emotional gamut.

That’s not how it worked for CoCo Vandeweghe at this year’s Australian Open. In the fourth round, the 25-year-old Californian blew past top seed Angelique Kerber, 6-2, 6-3, in 68 minutes. It was her first win over a world No. 1, and when it was over the local TV commentator screamed, “She’s done it!”

Yet as Vandeweghe watched Kerber’s last return of serve float long, she was the picture of nonchalance. She looked over to her player’s box, shrugged her shoulders, and turned her palms upward, as if to say: “So, that just happened.”

When Vandeweghe was asked how she felt, she didn’t tear up, feign speechlessness or gush about how she had played the match of her life. Instead, as she put it, “Well I guess I faked it a lot because I was feeling like crap out there, but, you know, ‘fake it till you make it.’”

By now, nine years after Vandeweghe tore through the junior U.S. Open without dropping a set as an unseeded 16-year-old, tennis fans in the U.S. have come to expect the unexpected from her. After her semifinal run in Melbourne, they’re starting to expect the unexpectedly brilliant.

Unlike most of her tight-lipped peers, Vandeweghe doesn’t fly solo during matches. Whether it’s with a sarcastic smile or an unbridled roar, she gives us regular status updates on how she’s feeling. When she wants more love from the crowd, she cups her hand behind her ear and demands it. Vandeweghe will smash her racquet to smithereens after a bad game, and chuck it high into the crowd to celebrate a victory. Hugs, smiles and kisses after a match generally aren’t her style; a hard handshake is enough.

“It’s just another person in front of me,” Vandeweghe says of her opponents. “Someone who is standing in the way of me achieving my goals.”

At the 2015 U.S. Open, Vandeweghe became the first player to do an interview in the middle of a match, with ESPN’s Pam Shriver. Two months earlier, at Wimbledon, she made headlines by calling NBA star Carmelo Anthony “soft.” It’s an accusation that few have directed at Vandeweghe, who hits as hard, and plays with as much explosive power, as anyone in the WTA. Two years ago, during Wimbledon, the Observer proclaimed Vandeweghe the “Ronda Rousey of tennis,” after the body-slamming mixed martial arts star.


Confident CoCo Vandeweghe: From out-of-the-ordinary to extraordinary?

Confident CoCo Vandeweghe: From out-of-the-ordinary to extraordinary?

Vandeweghe understands that she’ll never be every tennis fan’s cup of strawberries and cream.

“I get so many comments, good and bad,” Vandeweghe says. “I’m not going to be everyone’s favorite. I have my favorites and least favorites. I know who I am.

“I know what makes me enjoy myself on the tennis court. The reason I play is for myself and my family, and that’s it.”

Still, Vandeweghe has been around the sports world long enough to know that a good show requires a cast of characters. She also knows that she’s at her best when she’s feeding off the crowd.

“What makes me thrive on the court is feeling energy,” Vandeweghe says. “That comes from everywhere in tennis, or any sport.

“I think it’s a bonus to have something different from the mundane. The WTA certainly needs it, no doubt about that.”

But while Vandeweghe can intimidate with her serve and her strut, those who know her well say she can be as guarded off the court as she is bold on it.

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Trust has never come easily to Vandeweghe, whose parents divorced when she was young. After Tauna and CoCo’s father, Robert Mullarkey, split up, mother and daughter moved from New York to California. CoCo later set her allegiances in stone when she changed her last name from Mullarkey to Vandeweghe. Two years ago she told espnW, “I have zero relationship with my father.” Her grandfather, Ernie—CoCo calls him “Pal”—played that role for her until he died in 2014 at age 86.

At 6'1", she possesses one of the WTA’s best serves and most naturally lethal forehands, and she moves well for someone so tall. The sky—or at least a Grand Slam title or two—would seem to be the limit for her, and her talents may take her the furthest at Wimbledon.

“I’ve learned to play on grass,” says Vandeweghe, whose two WTA titles have both come at the grass-court event in ’s-Hertogenbosch. “It’s an unforgiving surface, but that forces me to simplify a lot of things and trust in my game.”

The longer-term question is: How do you get Vandeweghe to reach her peak, and then stay there? After her semifinal breakthrough in Melbourne, she lost in the opening round at her next three tour events.

Vandeweghe admits that she struggles to find the same intensity in practices that she does in matches. On some days, she struggles to find it at tournaments, too.

“I really need to want to be out there,” says Vandeweghe, who will turn 26 in December. “Sometimes I’m in a match and I’ll think, ‘Jeez, I’d rather be anywhere else right now.’ I think everyone has that with their job.”

Vandeweghe isn’t alone in her struggles. In many ways, she represents the success of American tennis in recent years, as well the challenges it still faces.

On the women’s side, the USTA has vastly broadened its base of talent. In terms of numbers, the country has become dominant: as of early May, there were 14 U.S. players in the WTA Top 100; Russia was a distant second with nine.

“We’ve come a long way,” says Ola Malmqvist, the USTA’s head of women’s tennis. “At one point we had five people in the Top 100; our goal was to get to 20, and we’re close.”

The overarching goal is to turn these talented American players into tougher competitors. Malmqvist cites Shelby Rogers, a 24-year-old South Carolina native who reached the 2016 French Open quarterfinals, as an example of someone who is making that transition.


Confident CoCo Vandeweghe: From out-of-the-ordinary to extraordinary?

Confident CoCo Vandeweghe: From out-of-the-ordinary to extraordinary?

Like Vandeweghe, though, Rogers’ progress has been stop and start. After her run at Roland Garros, she lost eight of her next 10 matches. She’s not the only one. Over the last two seasons, Christina McHale, Nicole Gibbs, Lauren Davis, Sloane Stephens, Louisa Chirico, CiCi Bellis, Alison Riske and Jennifer Brady have all shown flashes of brilliance and long-term potential, but so far Madison Keys is the only U.S. woman to join Venus and Serena Williams in the Top 10.

“I’m not sure people in the States will start to notice our progress until we have players winning Grand Slams,” he says. “But that’s the goal, to create champions.”

Can Vandeweghe be one of those champions? Can she make her sky’s-the-limit talent work for her week in and week out? One thing is clear: She’s happy to wave the flag for American tennis.

After slumping through the early spring, Vandeweghe bounced back during the Fed Cup semifinals in Florida in April. There she led the U.S., almost single-handedly, to a win over the defending champion Czech Republic. Vandeweghe won both of her singles matches, then teamed with her friend, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, for the deciding doubles point.

When the tie was over, Vandeweghe didn’t give her coaches a “So, that happened” shrug. Instead, she fell to the clay, hugged Mattek-Sands, high-fived everyone on the team and a few people who weren’t, and gleefully bashed balls into the cheering, chanting all-American crowd.

“I’ll continue to keep playing as long as I’m called upon,” Vandeweghe said. “I think more people should take that as a priority because Fed Cup is such a great atmosphere, such a great kick-starter to a career. It’s such a great momentum builder for a lot of different things.”

Could one of those things be a title at Wimbledon this month? It would take the best that Vandeweghe has to offer, but American tennis fans are starting to expect the extraordinary from her.


Confident CoCo Vandeweghe: From out-of-the-ordinary to extraordinary?

Confident CoCo Vandeweghe: From out-of-the-ordinary to extraordinary?

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