Vania King has had a memorable career, to say the least. She has won two grand slam doubles titles ranked as high as #3 in the world in doubles and #50 in singles. However, if you read between the lines, her success has not come easily. Vania has faced many challenges throughout her career, including a decided fate, late love for the sport, serious injuries, and tough comebacks. Despite those challenges, she is thankful for what the sport has given her. Now age 31, Vania will be retiring after playing Miami and Charleston this year after a long career. Off the court, you can find Vania working for the WTA as the Community Development Ambassador and with her nonprofit, Serving Up Hope. In this interview with Vania, we talked about her junior career, challenges on tour, memorable moments, injury prevention, charitable passions, the mark she wishes to leave on the sport, and how the sport has shaped her. If you would like to check out her career results you can click here. Also, if you would like to check out her Instagram, check that out here.
- Can you talk about your junior tennis career and when you fell in love with the sport?
I picked up a racquet when I was two-years-old, but started playing seriously around 6. I am the youngest of 4 kids, and my brother played tennis, so my sisters and I followed in his footsteps. I did not have a normal junior career. My dad was my coach, and I played a lot with my sisters. We would play 4-6 hours every day. Many times, my parents would drop us off at the courts to play all day while they were at work. When my dad started seeing that I was improving, he wanted me to play up in age divisions. I was 13 when I was playing 18U tournaments and was ranked 3 or 4 nationally in 18u. I was committed to Stanford, but in that gap year between 16 and 17 years old, I made the top 100 WTA rankings. I was 70 WTA when I chose to skip college when I was 17 years old. I did not fall in love with tennis until I was 25. For a long time, tennis represented a lot of fear and pain because it was hand in hand with my relationship with my dad and how he developed my relationship with tennis. It was not until I was away from tennis during an injury at age 25 that I fell in love with the sport.
- Can you talk about the player-coach relationship you and your dad had? What role do you think parents should have in sports?
I do not think there is a correct answer. It depends on family circumstances. Tennis is not a cheap sport, so some families need to have parents more involved than others if they cannot afford lessons. My dad would take me to great coaches in SoCal and I would take lessons from them once a week or twice a month and he would study what they taught me. After that, we would implement what I learned in practice. In a perfect scenario, one would have a parent that is positive, supportive, and knowledgeable about tennis, but that is not always feasible.
- Can you think about your initial challenge on tour, and how did you overcome it?
I had an unusual rise to get to the top 100. When I was 17, I reached the top 100, which happened in 6 months on tour. It happened because I received a wild card into U.S Open qualifying and won a round in the main draw early in my career. There were additional quality ranking points so if you beat someone that was ranked higher than you, you would get additional points… so I moved from 800 to 250 after that. I was lucky in that I bypassed the normal struggles on the futures and challenger level However, because of that, I turned pro when I wanted to go to college. I had to take advantage of the situation I was in, but my parents also decided for me. My initial challenge was dealing with the mental aspect of not wanting to play and not being able to make that decision for myself. All of my friends were in college, and my hardest challenge was trying to find joy in a life that I did not want at that time.
- At what point in your career did you start to travel with a coach? What benefits do they bring?
I traveled with a coach since the beginning of my career, whether that was my dad or a professional coach. The higher-level tournaments you are playing, the smaller the margins are, so it is extremely important to have someone with you. The lifestyle is difficult too, so having someone with you helps so much. No one wins every tournament, meaning you are losing every week, which was tough mentally.
- How common is it to stick with one partner for the calendar year? What qualities are you looking for when choosing a doubles partner?
For the average player, I played with a few partners. I would say I have played with less than 10 players for a long time. I prioritized singles, so I could not always commit to doubles and sometimes your partner would play a different tournament. I would say that statistically, it is uncommon, but obviously, the goal is to have the same partner for as long as possible. I would say the average long term relationship would last 1-3 years. I would look for someone who had the same extrinsic goals as me and intrinsic goals like a drive to win every event and not just a few rounds. I am not saying we had to, but I wanted to have that opportunity to win slams.
Personality is huge also. I am intense on the court and I did not want someone that would put pressure on us to win because I thought we could not control that. I found I played best with a partner that was easy going and did not put pressure on us to win.
- What was tougher for you to achieve, your top singles ranking or top doubles ranking? And why?
I was not a person who focused on ranking goals. For me, it was about consistency and putting in the right work while staying motivated and positive. I knew that if I was motivated and put in the right work then the results would come. I would say singles was harder because I put in so much work and singles were a lot harder for me physically. Doubles came more naturally to me and I was lucky that I had coaches who emphasized to me that singles helps doubles and doubles helps singles. In terms of logistical things, I prioritized singles over doubles, but still valued doubles a lot and worked on it.
- Is there a player you have played a lot of close matches with? I noticed you played Bartoli a lot. What made her opponent so tough?
When you think of a rival you think of a player you were at the top with. I would not consider myself ever good enough to have a rival. One player I played against a few times would be Bartoli and despite her ranking, I was successful against her. I had a game that suited her because she plays quickly and early and I did as well. Being smaller, the challenge I had was holding serve. Although Marion was a top player, I was quite comfortable with her serve and was able to be aggressive.
- What is the most memorable doubles moment of your career?
Winning Wimbledon, because it was so unexpected. We were unseeded and only played two tournaments together before that. We had no expectations going in. After we won I just remember screaming for 20 minutes due to pure happiness. A few weeks after that I was still in shock.
- What is the most memorable singles moment of your career?
I only won one title in singles and I was so young. When I decided to start playing again after my injury at 25 I missed being on the court and that experience. When I started playing tournaments again I got back to the top 100 in 6 months again. I never lost the first round in any tournament I played from January to the beginning of October. Just that six-month period was impactful and changed my perspective a lot on tennis, so because of that, it was my most memorable moment.
- How mentally tiring can overcoming injuries be? What is one tip you have for tennis players when dealing with an injury?
A few years ago I had surgery on my ankle and I have not been successful coming back. Coming back from injury is tough because there is a long way to go as far as recovery. It is physically painful in rehab and having to relearn activity is tough. You also lose a ton of muscle and mobility and recovering from the surgery I had a lot of pain. So I think the uncertainty is the worst part. My recommendation is to try your best and do everything you can to get better. Do not have expectations that things will be the way they were before because the uncertainty is tough. Acceptance of where you are in the moment and trying your best to keep moving forward is super important. I would advise you to see other doctors as well. They are great, but they are human too.
- Was there a point in your career where you were doing more PT than on-court training?
That only happened when I was coming back from surgery, in terms of actual time rehabbing versus playing. While I was playing while I was healthy I would see physical trainers very often to stay on top of injury prevention. Seeing the physical trainers consistently helps you maximize performance. It is boring to do, but it is essential!
- Can you talk about your role as the Community Development Ambassador for WTA Charities?
WTA has a charity arm that is a 51c3. I work with Ann Austin, who oversees all of the WTA charity. My role with WTA Charity is more on external programs, player education, and player outreach. The nonprofit sector and philanthropy has helped me so much and has given me a lot of support and peace. Anything that is involved in community engagement I work with also. In terms of player outreach, I did lots of different campaigns and got players involved through surveys and player education through workshops.
- What is your mission behind Serving Up Hope? Do you have any goals for your nonprofit in 2021?
Our mission is to provide sustainable tennis programs for underprivileged children around the world. Our current program is running in the capital of Uganda. We have also recently taken over a program in Santiago, Chile. In the program in Kampala, Uganda, the goal is just to grow the program. It is stable and running four times a week with two community programs, and we have 60 kids in that community. We go out to where they live and hold the program there twice a week. We identify kids who show more promise and place them in a high-performance group an additional two times per week at a tennis facility. Our goal is to add another program site, and my short term goal is to reach all of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. From there, I would like to reach out to the regions which are much more rural.
- How did you choose Uganda to start your program?
I read an article about property rights in East Africa, and it mentioned a story about a woman whose husband passed away and how her brother-in-law wanted the land even though it was rightfully hers and tried to kill her. Luckily, someone heard her screaming, so he fled and there was a legal aid NGO that represented her called Barefoot Law. I was very touched by her story. We want to be a part of a world that has equality and fairness, so I just reached out to the legal aid NGO, visited Uganda, connected with some of the lawyers, and about a year and a half ago we talked about ways I could help. We hosted a legal aid and tennis event there and saw that there was a need there. I love Uganda and the people there.
- What do you want people to remember you for?
I want to be remembered as a great player, but I believe in sportsmanship and fairness, and I tried to be respectful and sportsmanlike throughout my career on and off the court. So if I could be remembered for something like that, that would be great.
- In 3 words, what has tennis done for you/how has tennis shaped you?
It has defined my identity, resilience, and joy.