STUTTGART, Germany - It’s no surprise that CoCo Vandeweghe’s relationship to red clay is a bit complicated. When asked to describe it in Tinder terms, the 26-year-old American bluntly said, “Swipe left, turn down, no number.”
But through to the final at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart in a run that included a straight-sets quarterfinal stunner over World No.1 Simona Halep - a two-time French Open finalist - Vandeweghe is starting to rethink her stance.
“Maybe I’ll get a coffee with [the clay]!” she laughed after her semifinal win over Caroline Garcia. “I won’t give them a full dinner date, but they have to buy me a coffee at least. I’m not paying for my own coffee!”
Vandeweghe notched a clean win over US Open champion Sloane Stephens in her Stuttgart opener, dropping just one game across two quick sets, and then backed it up by knocking out defending champion Laura Siegemund in front of her home crowd.
While other players make a top-to-bottom change in their game when they make the switch from hardcourt to clay - Elina Svitolina says, “I have to break everything into small pieces” - Vandeweghe goes about it rather the opposite way. Instead of getting caught up in the intricacies of the surface, she readjusts her competitive mentality and hopes her game will follow suit.
“There’s always little minute things you can control no matter what… And two big things for me is your competitive drive and your attitude,” she said. “You can have tennis be that escape of enjoyment, and take pride in what I’m doing. I’m very proud when I’m competing hard and showing determination and showing how much I care about what I’m doing.”
“I just try best out there and compete hard. That is something I can control day in and day out.”
Vandeweghe’s infamous aversion to clay dates back to her days as a Junior player: too promising on the hardcourts and with the USTA Under-18s Hardcourt Nationals being held nearby in California, her coaches never let her compete on clay in favor of focusing on the hardcourts. It earned her a Junior US Open crown - and later, two WTA titles at the Grass Court Championships in ‘s-Hertogenbosch - but as a result Vandeweghe never played on the surface until she was 16.
“I was never an academy kid. I grew up basically playing at parks, playing in kids’ clinics. My mom couldn’t afford lessons - she was a single parent - so I was just like, whatever I could find, I did.
“So for me, the first time I actually had to play was Junior Fed Cup at 16. The USTA coach that we had was Richard Ashby, and so to help us slide and things like that - or well, mainly for me because the other two girls grew up in Florida and they grew up around clay - he was like, “Okay, slide into the ball when you’re picking up the balls after practice.” And I slid in, stuck my toe, tumbled, and the two other girls were laughing at me. And I was like, “I can’t play on this!”
After accidentally missing the entry deadline and needing a wildcard to get into Stuttgart, Vandeweghe found her clay season extended by an additional week after her agent inadvertently entered her into the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome - a tournament she normally skips over in favor of a trip home to the States. Adding her Stuttgart doubles commitment to good friend Bethanie Mattek-Sands - with whom she reached the quarterfinals - into the equation, Vandeweghe has already clocked more time on clay than she bargained for.
“Well, I’m stuck out here for a longer while than I intended to be,” she explained. “So, it’s more finding the pocket of when I can go home. That’s what my light at the end of the tunnel is…
“These tournaments outside of the Grand Slams, no matter what level, I’m working on something to make sure that I’m capable of having the best results during the Grand Slams, and Fed Cup as well, for me. Those two, Grand Slams and Fed Cup, are the most important things for me.
“And I compete hard out here to try to get my footing and find some rhythm to my tennis, because it’s nice to be finally playing consistently, where at the start of the year I really wasn’t. My schedule was very light just because I wasn’t healthy yet. So it’s nice to just be playing and competing.”
But even after earning three Top 10 wins in the same tournament for the first time in her career and with her fearsome serve clicking once more - she didn’t face a break point against Garcia, and Halep couldn’t break her serve - she’s still only got one strategy on clay:
“Pretty much I’m just surviving. It’s not rocket science for me. [Playing on clay] is like pulling teeth, but yeah. Slowly but surely I’m gaining confidence. But we can’t jump from 1 to 100 yet.”
Vandeweghe will meet No.5 seed Karolina Pliskova in Sunday’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix final in Stuttgart.