LONDON—The many coaches, family members and friends seated in Mona Barthel’s player box spoke German almost exclusively during the 26-year-old’s first-round match on Court 18 at the All England Club, but for two notable instances.
The first: “Super!” Considering Barthel is one the most skilled unseeded players in the draw, that exclamation was heard few and far between on Tuesday. A former member of the Top 25, Barthel has put together a solid if unspectacular career that includes four WTA titles and three runner-up finishes. But after nearly dropping outside the Top 200 late last year, the nearly 27-year-old has had to play nearly as many qualifying matches in 2017 (19) as she has main-draw contests (26).
Nonetheless, a return to form—punctuated by an eight-match title run in Prague (three wins in qualifying wins, five in the main draw)—brought Barthel into the heart of the Grand Slam season with added confidence, something her first-round opponent, CoCo Vandeweghe, has been searching for.
Vandeweghe, the big-serving, hard-hitting, unfiltered and polarizing American, took the first giant step forward in her career at Wimbledon three years ago, when she reached the quarterfinals. Her second step forward step took place six months ago, when she reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open. Those highlights showcased Vandeweghe’s athletic gifts, as well as her gift of gab. She blasted Maria Sharapova, her Wimbledon quarterfinal vanquisher, in the press for unsporting behavior; the Russian was accused of moving during Vandeweghe's service motions. In Melbourne, Vandeweghe made headlines—along with the cover of TENNIS Magazine’s Wimbledon preview issue—for her on-court remarks after routing world No. 1 Angelique Kerber: “Well I guess I faked it a lot because I was feeling like crap out there,” said Vandeweghe after a 6-2, 6-3 over the two-time Grand Slam champion, “but, you know, ‘fake it till you make it.’”
But just as Barthel was turning her season around, Vandeweghe was headed in the opposite direction. A first-round loss at the French Open was followed by a first-round loss on grass, a surface catered to Vandeweghe’s powerful game. The 25-year-old put together two victories in Birmingham—including a commanding, 6-1, 6-3 win over Johanna Konta—but had to retire in her quarterfinal match. Not unlike Nick Kyrgios, whose hot start to the season has been met with recent injury concerns, Vandeweghe sees Wimbledon as both a great opportunity and an even greater challenge.
This might help explain why a pre-tournament dark horse was audibly fist-pumping after crushing a sitter overhead while leading Barthel by a set and a break. Or, at the same interval, why she silently but noticeably pumped herself up after Barthel returned a first serve long for 15-0. But this doesn’t explain it all. This must be remembered: Vandeweghe plays one way, whether you like it or not, and it’s served her extremely well in her still-burgeoning career.
Vandeweghe’s career took a turn just before Wimbledon, when she split with coach Craig Kardon (who spoke glowingly of Vandeweghe for our cover story) and signed on with Pat Cash, who won Wimbledon 30 years ago. Known for his signature checkered headband, and an active and engaging Twitter follow (@TheRealPatCash), Cash was seated one row in front of me. Like many side courts at Grand Slam tournaments, Court 18 seats both players’ teams in the same area.
In truth, I understood just as much of what Barthel’s team had to say in the mixed zone as what Cash uttered. In hushed tones, he told Vandeweghe to focus on the “first point,” and to get ready for “this one.” He pecked match notes on his iPhone sparingly, sitting silent for much of the match. Cash was a calming counterbalance to Vandeweghe, who remained at her fast-paced speed, and a vocal presence, throughout the match.
Which brings me to the second bit of English I heard cascade down from the German contingent: “Full swing, hit hard, with a lot of spin.” And the Germans weren’t talking about their own.
The description was, of course, about Vandeweghe, but it wasn’t about the shot she’s often identified with, her serve. It was about her forehand, the shot which ultimately decided this 7-5, 6-2 contest. On grass, Vandeweghe’s crosscourt forehand is a lethal weapon; her full swing and extreme grip gives imparts ample spin on the ball, which picks up K.P.Hs as it grazes the turf below. It’s a devastating hypotenuse.
At one point, Cash asked Vandeweghe to watch her “footwork,” and Barthel’s team should have been telling her the same thing in their native tongue. Barthel relies on impeccable timing to defeat her opponents, but only pristine footwork would allow her to work her subtle magic on the ball against an in-form Vandeweghe. Even so, it wasn’t nearly enough against the No. 24 seed's reliable power. Hitting over the highest part of the net while hitting out on the ball, Vandeweghe discovered a go-to shot that instantly titled points in her favor.
Vandeweghe’s forehands helped break down Barthel, and her serve kept Barthel from making any significant inroads. But could her biggest weapon of all be Cash? Still in the honeymoon phase of their coaching relationship, Cash and Vandeweghe were elated to see each other after the match ended. After an exchange of congratulations with other members of her player box, Vandeweghe and Cash walked ahead of the pack, chatting amicably as if on a pleasant stroll through the English countryside. It was the footwork of a Wimbledon champion, and an aspiring one.
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