NEW YORK -- It’s been a tough slog in recent years for CoCo Vandeweghe.
There have been constant, chronic foot and ankle issues -- and, of course, “blowing off my finger didn’t help.” She’s played only 31 WTA Tour-level matches over the past five years, but mention 2017 and the transplanted Californian’s face lights up.
“Having so much success -- semifinals here in my home Slam, semis at the Australian Open, quarters at Wimbledon,” said Vandweghe, who was born in New York. “It’s hard to be greedy as to which was my favorite, but the cherry on the cake was winning the Billie Jean King Cup.”
Hard to believe that all of those things happened in a single season. Harder to believe that the 31-year-old, whose ranking soared as high as No.9, never came close to that level again.
Her career ended quietly Wednesday night, out on Court 9 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, as she and Sofia Kenin lost a doubles match to Cristina Bucsa and Alexandra Panova.
“I was elated,” Vandeweghe said. “Not that I was dreading the moment being over. It was more like I’m happy, I’m content with my career. I know who I am and what I’ve done.
“It’s OK. Sometimes bad luck comes along with great success. Injuries happen in sports – that’s life. And I just made bad choices, was kind of led to those bad choices regarding my foot. Continuing to play through 2018, that pretty much was detrimental to my career.”
She was recognized by the USTA Tuesday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium, when a tribute video officially announced her retirement. Vandweghe watched the night’s matches from a seat in the President’s Suite. There was a more private champagne toast in the tennis garden with remarks from outgoing Billie Jean King Cup captain Kathy Rinaldi and the USTA’s chief executive Stacey Allaster.
Vandeweghe won 341 times in singles and 125 in doubles. She was a Grand Slam doubles champion, winning the 2018 title at the US Open with former World No.1 Ashleigh Barty. Vandeweghe also won two singles titles, both on the grass in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and four more in doubles. She was a two-time mixed doubles major finalist.
Her real passion was playing for Team USA. From April 2016, when she defeated Australia’s Sam Stosur, to February 2018 and a win over Richel Hogenkamp of the Netherlands, Vandeweghe won eight straight matches in Billie Jean King Cup play. When the United States won in 2017, ending a 17-year drought, Vandeweghe scored a critical win over Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic in the semifinals. She and Shelby Rogers won the deciding match in the final over Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka and Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
“I’ve loved playing for my country -- I’ve always said yes,” Vandweghe said. “The only time I’ve said no to Billie Jean King playing was when my foot was basically shattered in 2018, so I really didn’t have a choice.
“I always think it’s the biggest honor you could ever have is to be asked by your country to represent them.”
To underline that belief, Vandeweghe has interviewed for the vacant United States’ Billie Jean King captaincy.
Blessed with an incredible athletic pedigree, Vandeweghe grew up playing basketball; she made the national All-American team as a 13-year-old. Her mother was an Olympic swimmer and volleyball player for the United States, grandfather Ernie played basketball for the New York Knicks and uncle Kiki played at UCLA. While CoCo had a future as a 6-foot power forward, she eventually gravitated toward tennis.
In the end, her body wasn’t up to the rigors of professional tennis. There was a diagnosis of CRPS (chronic regional pain syndrome) for her foot and in 2020, a bowl that wasn’t microwave-safe exploded in her hand, severing two tendons in her left pinky and a nerve.
“I’ve been crippled by injuries the last couple of years,” she explained. “Tennis is tough with everything. It’s never-ending, it doesn’t stop. It was very tough to move and ask my body to do what it needed to do. And I couldn’t do it consistently. I was able to make inroads, but I was never quite the same.
“Father Time -- or is it Mother Nature -- is undefeated. Hopefully in the future, they’ll figure out a better way so we can stay healthy and aren’t pushed into playing when we’re injured. I think I did a lot of that very early on because you’re young and stupid and you’re invincible.”
She hadn’t made a firm decision either way, but when she arrived this year at Wimbledon, Vandeweghe didn’t feel the spark of excitement.
“You could just kind of feel it was time,” she said. “And I’ve always loved the competitive aspect of tennis-- practice was never my thing. I would, of course, train hard, but I relished the competition. And when that wasn’t enough for me anymore, I kind of knew.”
It’s fair to say she’s got a few options.
Vandeweghe is working at the US Open as an analyst for the BBC, after stints in Australia, Indian Wells and Wimbledon. Tennis Channel, she said, has asked her to do some matches later this month in Guadalajara. Like another California major champion, Lindsay Davenport, Vandeweghe is not afraid to tell it like it is.
She is also open, drawing on her vast experience, to coaching and mentoring players. The Billie Jean King Cup captaincy is another possibility.
What she’s really looking forward to is a flexible schedule. She’s already signed up for a four-ball event in northern California. And Vandeweghe’s going to attend Shelby Rogers’ wedding in December. She’s also looking forward to skiing – something she hasn’t done since she was 13.
“Close by is Big Bear, but maybe I’ll go to Tahoe,” she said. “Last time I went to Tahoe, I had to sit at the bottom of the hill and watch everybody else ski. I was so bored. Hopefully, knock on wood, I won’t [get hurt].”
And Vandeweghe reached over to a wooden umbrella spindle and rapped it with her knuckles.
Vandeweghe, who has always been a contrarian, might even play another singles match. She’s trying to score a wild card from the upcoming Cymbiotika San Diego Open, about 30 miles south of her home in Rancho Santa Fe.
In her mind, what will her legacy be?
“It’s represented in my play for Team USA,” Vandeweghe said. “That is my legacy. It showed in my passion for my teammates, for my country. I played on lots of different surfaces, with lots of different players, in lots of different countries.
“I think that’s admirable to be able to walk away to say on so many occasions I led with the American flag.”