MASON, Ohio — Coco Vandeweghe woke up in her hotel room in Hawaii and tried to get out of bed, but was unable to walk. The pain in her right foot was excruciating, and she was suddenly sensitive to even the touch of the bedsheet on it.
It was just days before Christmas, and she had been playing in an exhibition tournament in Honolulu. She had arrived at the event feeling like her right ankle injury and other health struggles she had dealt with for most of the 2018 season were finally behind her. But the two-time Grand Slam semifinalist ended up leaving the hotel in a wheelchair, as she was brought to the airport and rushed to the emergency room once she landed in her native Southern California.
She thought it was a broken foot, but an X-Ray revealed no bone breaks. Instead she was diagnosed with two stress fractures in her foot and complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a rare condition that typically affects a limb after an injury (likely her ankle in this case) and something, doctors believe, is caused by damage to the nervous system. There was no timetable for her recovery, and no guarantees she would ever play tennis again.
“My whole leg basically shut down,” she said on Wednesday at the Cincinnati Open, where she failed to qualify for the main singles draw but will play alongside Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the doubles quarterfinals on Thursday. “I couldn’t even touch my foot, it hurt that badly. I had no idea if I would be able to play again, or ever be without pain. I was on crutches, and then had a scooter, but it was such a struggle to move around.
“Because they don’t know all that much about CRPS, no one was sure how long it might take for me to walk or jog again. They told me it could take two years, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to come back. I thought time would run out, and I would be done in the sport.”
There was nothing Vandeweghe could do but rest and heal. Instead of packing her bags for Australia in January as she normally does, she was stuck at home. It was the latest in a string of disappointments for the 27-year old, who missed several tournaments in 2018 due to the ankle injury. She lost in the first round of the US Open, where she had been a semifinalist the year prior, and soon after told ESPN of her season, “Honestly, I would put 2018 into a dumpster and light it on fire.”
“I felt like a shell of myself. I never thought tennis was going to be taken away from me like that, and I had a major identity crisis. Like, ‘What am I going to do now?’ Even all of my favorite non-tennis things to do involve being active and healthy.” Coco Vandeweghe
She managed to slightly salvage her year with a doubles title in New York with partner Ashleigh Barty, and she was ready to get back on track in the upcoming season. Then she was sidelined from the tour yet again.
Save for the Serena Williams–Simona Halep Wimbledon final and pal Shelby Rogers‘ return from her own injury in Charleston, Vandeweghe didn’t watch any tennis. She couldn’t bring herself to. In fact, she didn’t do much of anything. She was unable to drive and became completely reliant on others — mainly her older brother and her mother — to cart her around when she needed to go somewhere. Ultimately, she spent most of her time at home alone.
“It was super depressing,” she said. “I became a hermit. I didn’t go anywhere, I didn’t do anything. People would offer to come get me or invite me out, but I really didn’t want anyone to see me. I felt like a shell of myself. I never thought tennis was going to be taken away from me like that, and I had a major identity crisis. Like, ‘What am I going to do now?’ Even all of my favorite non-tennis things to do involve being active and healthy.”
The pain began to subside in March, but she wasn’t exactly able to return to practice right away.
The former World No. 9 had to relearn how to walk first. It was a slow and arduous process that required her to gain stability, get her strength back and develop spatial awareness of exactly where her foot hits the ground when she steps. Eventually she was able to run again, and in early July she was able to hit some balls on the court. Initially she couldn’t even have a practice session on back-to-back days for fear of fatiguing her foot too much, but once she saw some of her friends from the tour at Alison Riske‘s wedding in mid-July, she knew she had to try to stage her comeback.
“Everyone was talking about what tournaments they were going to be playing, and about the US Open, and I started to feel a little jealous,” she said. “So there was a WorldTeam Tennis even the next day with my [San Diego Aviators] team and I decided to play. It felt like standing on the edge of a diving board, wanting to jump in, but being apprehensive and nervous. I just didn’t want to embarrass myself but then I was like, ‘Heck, let’s just go and see what happens.'”
She won her match against Taylor Townsend, pleased with her performance. She accepted a wild card for the Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose, California, soon after. She won her opener there too, in straight sets, before falling in the second round.
Vandeweghe knew she wasn’t ready to play in back-to-back tournaments so she skipped the Canadian Open, but signed up for qualifying in Cincinnati, as well as agreeing to play doubles with Mattek-Sands, a longtime friend and sometimes Fed Cup doubles partner. They beat Monique Adamczak and Kaitlyn Christian 6-2, 6-3 on Wednesday and face Alize Cornet and Kristina Mladenovic with a spot in the semis on the line.
— CoCo Vandeweghe (@CoCoVandey) August 14, 2019
Saying she feels about “60 percent” at this point, she’s officially ready to dive back in and will be playing singles, doubles with Mattek-Sands and mixed doubles with family friend and reigning NCAA doubles champion Maxime Cressy (their mothers played volleyball together at USC) at the US Open later this month.
While she would of course like to return to a top-10 ranking or win a major title, she’s just happy to be back right now, and appreciates every second she has on court.
“I’m not playing tennis the way I want to be yet, and who knows if I ever will, but I just love being back here,” she said. “I love competing and that’s what I missed most. There’s nothing like it, and you just can’t replicate that in practice.
“Walking back into the locker room felt like the first day of school after summer break — there were so many hugs. It was nice, and really meant a lot to see how much people cared and that they missed me over the past nine months. I just appreciate it all.”