With new coach and NBA DNA, Vandeweghe rolls

It's not surprising, given her elite athletic pedigree, that 19-year-old CoCo Vandeweghe has chosen a career in sports.

The gene pool from her mother's family -- that's the Vandeweghe side -- is predominantly centered on sports.

CoCo's mom, Tauna, swam in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Her specialty was the 100-meter backstroke. She was also an alternate on the 1984 U.S. Olympic volleyball team.

Vandeweghe's grandfather, Ernie, who played for the New York Knicks, was in the stands Tuesday, watching CoCo defeat Italy's Alberta Brianti and claim her first win at a Grand Slam tournament. CoCo's uncle, Kiki, was an NBA All-Star who later coached the New Jersey Nets. Her other uncle, Bruk, won a medal in beach volleyball at the 1994 Goodwill Games.

If that's not impressive enough, her great uncle, Mel Hutchins, also played for the Knicks. That's how Ernie Vandeweghe met and married Hutchins' sister and CoCo's grandmother, the late Colleen Kay Hutchins, who was Miss America 1952.

And CoCo's older brother, Beau, is also a jock. He plays volleyball at Pepperdine University.

On Tuesday, Vandeweghe finally put all that inherited athleticism to use at a Grand Slam. Competing in the main draw of a major for the seventh time, she finally advanced to a second round, defeating Brianti 7-5, 6-3.

"It took a couple of tries, but to finally get it done, I'm very elated about it," the 6-foot-1 Vandeweghe said. "I've had a bit of an on-and-off season, so to come and win your first match at a Grand Slam, in a main draw, is fantastic."

Until the early part of this summer, Vandeweghe was training under the tutelage of well-known USTA coach and former U.S. Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson.

Gullikson strongly encouraged Vandeweghe to spend the majority of her non-tournament time working with him at the USTA's training center in Boca Raton, Fla. Gullikson felt such an arrangement would not only improve Vandeweghe's fitness but also provide her with some independence. That's code for attempting to loosen her ties with her mother, who is a tried-and-true, hands-on tennis parent.

So Vandeweghe rented an apartment in Boca -- a 19-year-old with her own place. But she soon grew homesick for her family back in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. While in Stanford, Calif., for a tournament in July, she began to rethink her situation.

"At Stanford, Tom sat me down and said, 'If you're not going to be able to spend these X amount of weeks in Boca after [the tournament in] San Diego, the USTA can no longer be responsible for you,'" Vandeweghe recalled Tuesday. "I couldn't commit to that. I'm actually in the United States and I'd like to see my family and sleep in my own bed."

By the time she was headed to the San Diego tournament a week later, she had tabbed former ATP player Jan-Michael Gambill as her new coach; Gambill and Vandeweghe are teammates on the Boston Lobsters of World Team Tennis.

Gambill has walked into a delicate situation in taking on Vandeweghe, knowing her mother seems to be omnipresent. In fact, Tauna accompanied her daughter to this interview Tuesday.

But Gambill -- whose father, Chuck, was another hands-on tennis parent -- is not concerned.

"Tauna's nothing like my dad was, let's be honest," Gambill said. "If I can handle my dad, I can handle Tauna, so we're OK. I'm not going to change the situation. If I go in there and say you have to act like this, it's just going to create more strife than necessary. Tauna wants the best for her daughter and she's also an experienced athlete. I'm not afraid of her."

Just weeks into their partnership, Vandeweghe appears happy to have Gambill at her side. She believes his coaching helped her bring in that first Grand Slam win.

"It's nice to come to the Open and feel secure with who's around me," Vandeweghe said. "Today, he just said to me, 'I want a great attitude when you go out there. ... Keep it simple, stupid, for me.'"

What seems less simple is Vandeweghe's personal life. Although it's clear she would rather not broach the topic, the engaging teen discusses her family situation honestly when asked about it.

Vandeweghe is estranged from her birth father, Robert Mullarkey, a New York businessman, but is close to her stepfather, Michael O'Shea, a former fitness trainer who worked with John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King.

Despite the lack of a relationship with his daughter, Mullarkey showed up Tuesday at her match. He's made it a habit to watch her play whenever possible and also went to see her compete in World Team Tennis for the Boston Lobsters this summer. In the spring, he journeyed to the French Open, where CoCo lost in the first round.

Mullarkey also bought tickets for his daughter's second-round match against Samantha Stosur on Wednesday. His mother, Theresa Mullarkey, the chancellor of the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University and a former Ford model, will accompany him to Flushing Meadows.

"It's crushing because it's my daughter," Robert Mullarkey said. "I have to show up, not as an obligation, but out of love. No matter what's going on, even if our relationship is never repaired, she can never ever say I didn't show up, even though she ignores me."

When asked by email about her father being in the crowd for her first-round match, Vandeweghe responded, "Haven't talked to my dad in 3 years. Didn't know he was there. He really isn't a part of my life."

Mullarkey did have a say in one more recent major decision in Vandeweghe's life -- changing her name. He approved that his daughter -- born Colleen Hutchins Mullarkey after her maternal grandmother -- could become Mullarkey Vandeweghe, knowing the Mullarkey would ultimately be dropped. He understood the cache the Vandeweghe name holds within the American sports community.

No matter the troubled family ties, Vandeweghe is focusing on her career and inching ahead slowly, but surely.

Vandeweghe hit a milestone early this season when she reached the Memphis quarterfinals in February, which put her in the top 100 of the world rankings for the first time.

And now she looks ahead to playing a second-round match at the U.S. Open. She'll take on the ninth-seeded Stosur, a finalist at the 2010 French Open. Stosur's kick serve could keep Vandeweghe, whose return game is not her strength, on her heels.

But, at the very least, Vandeweghe will leave Flushing Meadows having achieved another milestone by winning at least one U.S. Open match. And for Vandeweghe, that's just another one of life's adventures.

"It's not at all what I expected," Vandeweghe said of her career trajectory. "You can't plan things out. There's a path for you and you have to follow that path in life. What happens, happens. You just got to go along on the journey."

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