Down South at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, the young veteran Vania King is quietly making strides in her career. Ranked No. 136 in the world and standing at just 5’4″, King’s assertive and versatile game is craftily knocking big hitters off of the green clay. After coming through the qualification rounds, the American is into the second round of a WTA event for the first time since Washington, D.C. last August, and with her win over good friend and former doubles partner Yaroslava Shvedova today in the first round, she notched her first top 40 win in over a year.
I sat down with her on Sunday afternoon after her impressive 6-4, 6-2 win over Karolina Pliskova that qualified her for the main draw. She was extremely friendly, open, and self-reflective as she talked candidly about her ups and downs over the last seven years. Because she’s been around the tour since 2006, it’s hard to believe that King is only 24 years old, just a year older than fellow American Jamie Hampton, who is considered an up-and-comer.
Seven years ago this month, Vania King was a 16-year-old tennis player who was being coached by her overbearing father. Still a junior, she received wildcards into Miami and Indian Wells, where she won a few matches before having a decent summer on the tour. By the time she reached the US Open in 2006, she was 17 years old and ranked No. 70 in the world, which gave her the confidence to turn pro. A few months later, she won her first WTA title in Bangkok, and that November she reached No. 50 in the world. She hasn’t won a singles title or been back to the top 50 since.
“When you’re young, you go out there and you don’t have a lot of pressure,” she said with a laugh. “Nobody knows who you are or how to play you. I broke through and did well for about a year, but then I struggled with motivation. It’s always been a thing for me, motivation.”
“I never went into tennis as my choice. My dad coached me since I was little and I always felt like I had to play, it was never that I wanted to play.”
After 2006, King struggled with the balance of being a regular teenager and a professional tennis player. Sensing a need for change, she made the brave decision to part ways with her Taiwanese father. “We didn’t have a good relationship at the end,” she said, suggesting that cultural differences were a big part of the problem. “He was a coach and not the father anymore, and I basically had to break off the relationship and move on. It was hard for both of us, but it was really hard for me. I was a teenager, just 17. I was miserable and he was really upset with me.” Though she was the one who made the decision to part ways, there were still many moments of doubt. “It was really difficult, but I think it was ultimately a good decision. You’ve got to do what you think is right.”
She struggled in the aftermath of the split, but when she was 19, she moved down to Florida where Andy Roddick’s former coach Tarik Benhabiles helped her turn things around. “He’s the one I owe so much to because he changed every part of my game. Mentally, I was a mess, and then slowly he turned around my head. But it’s been a process. Nothing is a straight and narrow.”
Part of that turnaround for King included massive success in doubles. She has 14 doubles titles, including 2010 Wimbledon and US Open titles with her partner Yaroslova Shvedova. The diminutive American and the tall, hard-hitting Kazak made an unlikely pair. “We became friends because we played juniors together. We were both on the outskirts, both of us coached by our dads. We always, like, we weren’t friends but we would always say ‘hi’ to each other. I wanted to try playing doubles with her because I saw she had a lot of potential.” When King’s regular partner and great friend Anna-Lena Groenefeld had to pull out of the French Open with a stress fracture in her foot and was questionable to for grass season, King decided to go for it. “I said, ‘Slava, let’s play!’” The complementary duo had instant success, making the semifinals of Birmingham, the finals of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and then winning Wimbledon.
It was a fairytale run, but it wasn’t a fluke. The two went on to win the US Open that year as well, and ended 2010 at the WTA Tour Championships, an honor only given to the top four doubles teams of the year. They made one other major final at the 2011 US Open, but lost a tough match to Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond in a third set tiebreak. “Losing the finals of the US Open, that was really heartbreaking for us,” she said. “But it’s better to feel something than feel nothing.”
Though King and Shvedova decided to part ways as doubles partners this year, King was adamant that there were no hard feelings. “It was a mutual decision, but our friendship is going to last forever,” she said. “We’re really, really close. We know, like, everything about each other. When you have such incredible memories with someone, there’s a bond that can’t be broken.”
Unlike a lot of the American women, King has never worked closely with the USTA. “When I was a junior they helped me out, but since then they haven’t,” she said with a sigh, choosing her words carefully as she discussed their relationship. “We’re okay. I do my thing, and they do their thing. It’s difficult. Players, especially professional ones, don’t need complete oversight. Sometimes you need, like, a fitness coach, or sometimes you need financial help. Unfortunately, I feel like the USTA wants to manage the players completely.”
King came onto the scene during a weird time for US women’s tennis, a period that she jokingly referred to as a “funk.” Coming on the heels of Serena and Venus Williams, nothing less than No. 1 seemed to appease the media, and it certainly didn’t help that she didn’t have many other American compatriots her age to share the burden with. Things are a bit different for the generation below her, as there are now 11 Americans in the top 100, and most of them quite young and have a great camaraderie. King seems genuinely happy for them. “They’re all really nice and really talented, and I’m really happy the US is bringing up a lot of good players,” she said with a huge smile.
After seeing her ranking drop down to the lowest it’s been since she turned pro, King has once again recommitted herself to the sport. She’s hired a new coach, Alejandro Dulko (the brother and former coach of Argentinean player Gisela Dulko), and is cautiously optimistic about the future. “So far it’s working good. I’m just trying to take it day by day and put the work in, because for about a year, I was struggling with motivation. I was really thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, whether this was the right thing. But I felt like I owed it to myself to give myself a proper chance, and to try something new and see how it goes.”
Her results at the Family Circle Cup the past few days prove that the relationship is off to a great start. This week she’s also teaming up with American veteran Lisa Raymond in doubles. The two played together for the first (and only) time in Fed Cup way back in 2007, and King is looking forward to continuing the partnership. “I have the utmost respect for her,” she gushed. “I remember I played her when she was playing singles still, I think I was 16, and I was so nervous because she was an idol of mine. Since then she’s been so nice to me, she’s really helped me and guided me on tour. She’s one of the greats, and I really enjoy playing with her because she’s always positive and she knows what to do.”
Staying positive is priority No. 1 for King these days, as she begins the climb back up the rankings. “Now, I think the best way for me … is to take it one day at a time, trying my best every day. Sometimes you get in a funk. Nobody’s perfect. There’s highs and lows in everything. You keep pushing forward, keep resetting, and try to enjoy every day.”
And as for her current relationship with her father, she is applying that same mindset of patience and perseverance. “We have an okay relationship now,” she said. “We get along alright. It’s not easy. I think time heals. Time also kills, but time can heal too.”