Stringing Together Success: An Interview with Vania King

I chatted with Vania King, winner of the 2010 Wimbledon and U.S. Open doubles titles, during one of her breaks during the Rogers Cup in Toronto this summer. She talked about her unusual path to professional tennis, the challenges she’s faced and where she sees her life after tennis.

Tell me a bit about your childhood and family, and how you got started playing tennis. Did you have any tennis players you admired as a kid?

I was born in Monterey Park, Calif., and I grew up in Long Beach. I’m the youngest of four. My brother Phillip, he’s 31 (eight years older than me), and he was a top-ranked junior player in the under-18s when he was 17 and 18. I have twin older sisters who are 27, named Ivana and Mindy, and they also played some tennis. My dad was coaching my brother and we followed his footsteps.

My dad must have seen something in me from a very young age. Ever since I can remember, he always wanted me to be number one in the world and always had high hopes for me. Definitely as a kid I wanted to be a professional tennis player. It’s only when you get older that you realize that life is a little more complicated than that.

When I was growing up I watched a lot of Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport. Sampras was from Southern California and he used to train at the Jack Kramer club where I trained. My brother hit with him when he was a top junior.

Why did you decide to turn pro?

When I was 16, I was going to get a full ride to Stanford. When I was 16 and a half, I got a wildcard into the qualifying tournament at the U.S. Open. I was ranked in the 800 or 900s at the time, but I made it through the qualifying tournament and won my first round, and with that tournament, I moved up to 260 in the rankings. I was still committed to Stanford and was supposed to go in the fall of 2007. But then I played some challenger events and finished 2006 at 160, and by the time my birthday came [in February], I was in the top 100. I really had to think about my options because I wasn’t expecting it– in a 6-month span, I suddenly was top 100, coming from nowhere.

At Wimbledon, I really had to make my decision. To be honest, I called up my parents and I was with my sister and I told them, I’m going to college. They said no, basically: We think you should turn pro and we want you to turn pro.

They made that choice because my brother, Phillip, they had him go to college and I know he had a passion for tennis more than I did. I grew up playing tennis because he played, but he chose it. Because he’s the oldest, the first child, they didn’t want him to make a mistake so they pushed him to go to college. I think they felt they had made the wrong decision, so they reversed it and had me turn pro.

So, to be honest, for a good two years I was really struggling with motivation. I was coached by my dad for a long time and he was pretty hard on me, so the week before I turned pro, I stopped working with him. To not have the person that was coaching me all my life, to find the motivation by myself, that struggle pretty much lasted until the end of 2008. Then, I got in touch with Tarik Benhabiles, who had coached Andy Roddick from a junior player to the No. 2 player in the world. It was desperate times, and he told me, “Okay, come over and we’ll sort everything out.” So I just went to Florida, even though I had never been away from my family or California before. He helped me find the motivation in tennis again and to work hard and take responsibility for myself and grow up. I trained with him until the end of last year.

What has been your proudest moment as a pro?

Obviously, winning the two grand slams in 2010. It was probably the most exciting time in my career and nobody can really expect it’s going to happen. It was especially memorable after going through a lot of things in my life. It was really touching to see that things worked out. I was happy that I was at the point that I really enjoyed tennis and I really enjoy the life that it’s given me.

When we won Wimbledon, it was out of nowhere. Nobody expected it. It was much more shocking, to me personally. I was in disbelief. At home [at the U.S. Open] we had experienced winning before, so I wasn’t as shocked. We went into the tournament and in the third round or quarters, we were down four or five match points. We didn’t even expect to get that far. We were just trying our best and working on match at a time. In the finals, we got rain delayed and got down a match point in the third set. I hit a forehand winner on their match point. It was incredible because all my family was there, and it was really special.

From the outside, being a tennis star sounds amazing: you get to travel the world and see all these cool places. What is it like to live that life?

I see tennis as my career as it is a job. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t make money. Every job has its difficulties. People on the outside, they think it’s so glamorous and you get pampered and you get to travel and stuff. On the other side of it, we have to work our asses off training, all day, every day. Even when you’re resting, you have to make sure you can’t just go shopping all day or go out for a drink, because you have to be careful not to tire yourself out and not to get injured or sick.

You have to be very, very dedicated. To be the elite of anything, you have to be extremely driven and quite selfish. You have to put yourself first or you cannot succeed.

My best friend is one of the few Americans I’m friends with– the rest are international. I appreciate so much that I was able to make these friends. But on the other hand, I barely get to see my friends or family at all. I see my best friend a few weeks of the year, and the rest of the time we have to make time with messaging and stuff. There’s pros and cons of any job. Tennis has way more opportunities than any other job: we can make way more money, and not many other jobs can allow you to travel so much.

It can be really hard to make friends because you’re competing against them. But I think if you’re balanced and you try think of things in perspective, you don’t have to be enemies to play well on the court. For me, I try to judge people on how they’ve treated me off the court and on the court as well. Sports teaches you respect and fairness, and I think we’re meant to apply that on and off the game as well.

What is an average day like for you? How about a typical year? Do you travel with a team?

You get up to have breakfast, then practice from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. You have lunch, then you practice from 2-4 p.m., then 4-5:30 p.m. you have fitness. Then you go and rest for an hour, then it’s dinner, and then you can do an hour of studying and that’s it, so training weeks are a lot harder. During tournaments, you have an hour of practice if you’re not playing a match, then you rest, because you don’t want to tire yourself out.

This year has been really rough to be honest. Because my ranking dropped, I had to play a lot of smaller tournaments. Basically since March, I played a tournament in Charleston, then, because my grandfather was unwell, I went to Taiwan, then to Buenos Aires, then Europe through the French open for six to seven weeks. Then I went back to Taiwan for my grandfather’s funeral, then back to Wimbledon, then team matches in the United States. It’s three weeks of traveling nonstop. Then I went to D.C. to play a tournament and now I’m in Toronto. It’s been a rough year and it’s not something I would have planned for myself, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Normally the schedule would be easier. You would play 25 tournaments a year and you try to give yourself a week or two between a set of tournaments.

Most tournaments it’s just my coach and I. Sometimes my family members can come, but pretty much my mom could only come one or two tournaments a year. It would be nice to have a trainer a physio or doctor, but it’s expensive.

After your rough year, I read in an interview that you had considered quitting the sport. How have you dealt with the challenges you faced this past year? How are you feeling at this point in the year?

From March of last year to March this year, I was struggling a lot. Looking back, I don’t know the exact reason, but I’m pretty sure it was just a culmination of factors. I was injured last year two or three times, and each time I battled back, but I felt like instead of being able to try my best on the court I was fighting myself. I was trying to be healthy, trying to be okay– I was under a lot of stress. Despite that, I was playing very well and happy on the court, which is where I wanted to be.

I was injured before Indian Wells but got healthy just in time and got to the third round in singles. Then, I got this airborne virus that a lot of the players got. I was up all night– I’ll spare you all the gory details, but nothing stayed inside my body– and I was so dehydrated I couldn’t walk for three days. I tried to play Miami and I won my first round, but I just wasn’t well at all. Mentally, that was the last straw for me. Maybe subconsciously I was just tired of fighting. I also wasn’t on the same page as my coach.

I kept trying to force myself to feel like everything was fine but it wasn’t. At the beginning of the year this year, I was still struggling with injuries. I was thinking, one year is a long time in a sport where your career isn’t that long. I wasn’t trying to be dramatic, I just wanted to be realistic.

So I thought, if I haven’t been happy for a year now, I have to make a change. I decided to give it one last shot. I took some time to get healthy and I started working with a different coach, Alejandro Dulko, because my last coach didn’t want to travel anymore. He’s been really good for me, very positive. My ranking hadn’t been good because I wasn’t doing well, but this year I’ve been working hard and playing a lot of matches. It takes time, but at this point, I’m happy with how I’m playing now and I’m happy to be on the court and stay there as long as I’m happy with it.

I saw on your Twitter that you proudly say you’re Taiwanese American. What does that mean to you? Do you maintain a connection to Taiwan and Taiwanese culture?

Both of my parents are Taiwanese and they immigrated to the United States in 1981, the year my brother was born. My parents didn’t raise me to be an American child– they raised me to be a Taiwanese child. It’s common for many Taiwanese and Chinese parents to be very traditionally Chinese or Taiwanese. The problem is, we grew up in America. I consider myself American with American culture, but I am also what my parents raised me to be. I’m part of both worlds.

I try to go back to Taiwan every year, usually to visit family. I can speak Mandarin, but it’s not great, since I was the youngest of four. We used to go to Saturday Chinese school but I stopped when I was 11 because I was playing tennis full time.

I only really started speaking Chinese because of the Chinese-speaking players on the tour, so thanks to tennis my Chinese is okay.

What are your plans for the rest of this year? How about in five years?

I’m going to play the U.S. Open, then go to Asia to play a few tournaments, then Moscow, and finally go on vacation. Then I start my off-season in Argentina and do a few week in Florida, and I’ll start next year.

I wouldn’t have thought about stopping if I didn’t think about what I’d do after. Right now, I’m doing university online with the University of Massachusetts. As I’m playing, I’m chipping away at that degree. I’m studying psychology. There was a time I took four classes in one semester and every moment I had, I was studying on the computer and doing tests and notes and stuff. I’ve kind of slowed it down to two classes per semester. Ideally, I’d like to do advising or counseling especially with kids or teenagers, especially in sports.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The U.S. Open starts August 26. Be sure to watch Vania, who earned a wildcard into the tournament, and cheer her on!

Karen Shih is a University of Maryland journalism graduate and in her day job, she writes for the university’s Terp alumni magazine. She was in the stands for one of Vania’s matches on her way to the 2010 U.S Open title, and was really excited to see her win!

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