|Vania King, playing doubles in Redding on Tuesday,|
faced Roberta Vinci this year and Serena Williams
last year in the U.S. Open. Photo by Paul Bauman
Vinci's shocking run to the final, in which she lost to fellow Italian Flavia Pennetta, began with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over King on an outside court. King also fell to Williams 6-1, 6-0 at Ashe in the second round at Flushing Meadows last year.
"I admire (Vinci) very much because she's one of the most underrated players," said King, who is scheduled to play top seed and defending champion Jennifer Brady today at 9 a.m. in the rain-delayed first round of The Ascension Project Women's $25,000 Challenger at Sun Oaks Tennis & Fitness. "She's had a terrific career. She's been in the top 40 for many, many years, and she's been in the top 20.
"If you look at her, she's not an imposing person, and her personality is not imposing at all. She's very quiet and respectful. I actually admire the sportsmanship side much more than the tennis side, but I also admire her game."
King, who's playing in her fifth tournament after missing almost one year because of a herniated disc in her neck, described Vinci's game as "very tricky. She's a very smart player. She uses her slice very well. She's very consistent with her slice. It's very difficult to play because it stays low, and she waits for the opportunity to attack with her forehand."
King, in fact, is something of a poor woman's Vinci.
Both are small. King, a 26-year-old Long Beach product whose Taiwanese parents ran a fish and chips restaurant for 25 years, is 5-foot-5 (1.65 meters). Vinci, the 32-year-old daughter of an accountant father and homemaker mother, is 5-foot-4 (1.63).
Largely for that reason, both have had more success in doubles than singles. Both are multiple Grand Slam champions in women's doubles. Vinci has won five majors, including a career Grand Slam, and King two (Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2010 with Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan). Vinci ascended to No. 1 in the world in women's doubles, and King reached No. 3.
Vinci improved annually in the year-end singles rankings from No. 83 in 2008 to No. 14 in 2013. She jumped from No. 43 to No. 19 by reaching the U.S. Open final. King finished the year in the top 100, fluctuating between No. 70 and No. 86, from 2009 to 2013. Vinci's career high is No. 11 in 2013; King's is No. 50 in 2006.
Also like Vinci, King is smart. She declined a scholarship offer from Stanford to turn pro in 2006.
Even King's first name is similar to Roberta's last name.
King conceded that Vinci had some luck at the U.S. Open, never playing a seed in five matches until facing Williams. In a bizarre twist, No. 25 Eugenie Bouchard of Canada withdrew from her scheduled fourth-round encounter against Vinci after falling in the locker room and suffering a concussion.
"At the U.S. Open, things all fell into place for her, and I think she knows that," King said. "At the same time, all these opportunities presented themselves to her, and she took them. That's very, very difficult. ... She totally deserved the result that she had there."
Williams, who had not dropped a set in four career matches against Vinci, fell 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 this time.
"I think Serena was dealing with nerves trying to complete the calendar Slam," said King, who watched most of the match on television.
King was a nervous wreck herself in her only career match against Williams but "not necessarily because of her. She was very imposing, but (it was) just because of the environment I was in, being on Ashe with so many people and cameras there. It was very overwhelming."
Williams' tenacity impressed King the most.
"I think Serena is mentally the strongest player," King said. "Granted, her game is incredible, but I think what really keeps her (on top) is her mental consistency and strength."
Was King surprised, then, that nerves apparently contributed to Williams' loss in the U.S. Open?
"Yes and no," replied King, who sang "America the Beautiful" at Ashe during the 2006 U.S. Open before the last victory of Andre Agassi's career. "We put her on a pedestal and think she should perform the same way every time, but none of us can imagine what it's like to have to deal with breaking a record that's (almost) 30 years old. She's already going to go down in history as the best player, but this would have been the cherry on top."
King had been feeling "a lot of nerve pain and limited mobility in my neck" for three months before facing Williams. An MRI a few weeks before the U.S. Open revealed a herniated disc caused "over time being a tennis player, putting my body into unusual positions," King said.
King rested for eight months in Long Beach, avoiding surgery. She relaxed for the first month, volunteered for the charities Nothing But Nets and Acing Autism, and worked as a substitute teacher for two months in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Nothing But Nets provides bed nets to fight malaria in Africa, and Acing Autism runs weekly tennis programs around the United States for children with autism.
Substitute teaching in elementary and high school, King said, "really made me appreciate how difficult a teacher's job is. It's very different from being a tennis player.
"It was difficult because you have to go into a different school every day, teach a different class and see so many different students. A lot of them were rowdy, and you have to learn how to manage the students, get the most out of them, and get them to follow the lesson plan of the teacher. It was a great experience."
King began hitting again in May and returned to competition last month in a $25,000 Challenger in Landisville, Pa. Since winning her first match, she has lost four straight.
Going from finals at fabled Centre Court at Wimbledon and massive Arthur Ashe Stadium to humble Sun Oaks Tennis & Fitness is jolting. But at least King is playing tennis again.
"(Redding) is a steppingstone," conceded King, whose ranking has plunged to No. 773. "This is not where I want to be, but I'm enjoying every moment of it. I'm really happy to be back on the court. I'm lucky to be back on the court. I didn't know if I'd be able to play again.
"My goal is to get my ranking back up to the top 100, hopefully as fast as I can, but I've got to get a lot stronger. I've only been playing for a few months. I was out for eight months. I've got to play a lot of matches and keep my head up."