Learn­ing to cope with her great ex­pec­ta­tions

DONNA VEKIC

Sport360 - - Copa Libertadores La Liga - By Reem Abulleil reemab­[email protected]

It is an all too fa­mil­iar story. A player shows tremen­dous prom­ise as a young teen, grabs head­lines and makes waves on the ten­nis cir­cuit. Ex­pec­ta­tions rise, pres­sure heaps, and that bud­ding tal­ent starts tak­ing mul­ti­ple de­tours on the road to suc­cess.

Donna Vekic is only 22 years old, but she al­ready feels like she’s seen and done it all. At 16, she reached the fi­nal as a qual­i­fier in Tashkent in 2012, which was her first-ever WTA main draw ap­pear­ance. At 17, she be­came the youngest WTA ti­tle win­ner in eight years when she hoisted the tro­phy in Kuala Lumpur.

Leg­ends like Chris Evert, who was Vekic’s favourite player grow­ing up, pre­dicted a top-10 ca­reer for the Croa­t­ian; oth­ers dubbed her the ‘next Maria Shara­pova’.

But tal­ent and hype can only take a player so far and Vekic ad­mit­tedly had to go through nu­mer­ous tri­als and tribu­la­tions on tour be­fore fi­nally com­ing into her own these past cou­ple of seasons.

She picked up her sec­ond WTA ti­tle in Not­ting­ham last year, made the fourth round at a ma­jor for the first time at Wim­ble­don last July, and lost a close fi­nal to Svet­lana Kuznetsova – af­ter hold­ing four match points – in Washington a few weeks later.

Vekic ends 2018 at a ca­reer-high 34 in the world rank­ings and could very much secure a seed­ing at the Aus­tralian Open if she has a strong first week of 2019.

“I feel like I made the next step this year. My goal at the be­gin­ning of the year was to make the sec­ond week of a Grand Slam and I did that at Wim­ble­don. That gave me a lot of con­fi­dence and I changed a lit­tle bit men­tally, I be­lieve in my­self a lot more,” Vekic told Sport360° dur­ing the Asian swing ear­lier this au­tumn.

“I’m al­ways a per­son who is very re­al­is­tic, I don’t think I can beat ev­ery­one when I know I don’t have the level.

“But now I def­i­nitely be­lieve I can play well and if I play re­ally well then I can beat ev­ery­one be­cause ev­ery­one is beat­ing ev­ery­one, so why wouldn’t I?”

That men­tal­ity was on full dis­play when Vekic de­feated Sloane Stephens (No. 9), Jo­hanna Konta (No. 43) and Caro­line Gar­cia (No. 4) back-to-back to reach the semi-fi­nals in Tokyo in Septem­ber.

It was an­other re­as­sur­ing week for the Monaco-based Vekic, who can now look back at her jour­ney with per­spec­tive and clar­ity.

“There were lots of ups and downs. I was very good when I was very young and then I was strug­gling a lit­tle bit at 18, 19, but I feel like at 22 I’ve been through ev­ery­thing,” she ex­plains.

“I’ve been through the highs and through the lows and now I’ve ma­tured a lot in the last cou­ple of years and fi­nally in the last two years I have some con­sis­tency through­out the year. This is re­ally im­por­tant to me be­cause be­fore when I used to play fi­nals, I would lose first round the next cou­ple of tour­na­ments.

“I still ex­pect a lot from my­self, I still put pres­sure on my­self, like to­day I thought it was a re­ally good op­por­tu­nity to make the third round [of the China Open] and that made me re­ally ner­vous and I re­ally wanted to win. That’s some­thing I still need to learn how to deal with a lit­tle bit bet­ter but over­all I’m re­ally happy with how con­sis­tent I am.”

For Vekic, there were many lessons learned dur­ing her search for con­sis­tency – one of which is the pa­tience and un­der­stand­ing that ev­ery­thing comes in its own time.

“I think it comes with age as well,” she adds. “You see a lot of young girls that are play­ing re­ally well but they can­not keep it up. “Even if they can keep it for a few tour­na­ments, they can­not keep it for the full year. And I think that’s what they need to re­mem­ber.

“Be­cause it’s very easy to get down on your­self and to be hard but it’s a jour­ney and if you have the level you will even­tu­ally reach the top and achieve your goals and if you don’t, you need to take it easy a lit­tle bit.”

One per­son who has helped Vekic stay pos­i­tive this sea­son, and not get down on her­self too much, is her coach Tor­ben Beltz, who joined her team at the end of 2017,

af­ter part­ing ways with Wim­ble­don cham­pion An­gelique Ker­ber.

“I re­ally enjoy work­ing with Tor­ben. We’ve been to­gether since the off­sea­son last year and we’ve been work­ing re­ally hard. He’s a re­ally pos­i­tive guy and he has a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence and he’s def­i­nitely helped me a lot. He has im­proved my game and gave me some in­sur­ance that if you do the right thing then the hard work will pay off, ,” says Vekic.

“It’s def­i­nitely pay­ing off and I’m re­ally, re­ally happy to be work­ing with him.”

The younger gen­er­a­tion has been mak­ing head­way on the women’s tour re­cently, and there are three play­ers – Naomi Osaka, Daria Kasatk­ina and Aryna Sa­balenka – aged 21-and-un­der ranked in the top-15.

Vekic doesn’t feel like the younger crew is ready to take over just yet though.

“Yes there are a lot [of 21-an­dun­der play­ers] in the top-20. There are a few of them win­ning, like Osaka and [Je­lena] Ostapenko last year win­ning the Slams but you still don’t see it through­out the whole year,” says Vekic.

“So for sure there are spe­cial mo­ments like that, but can they have the con­sis­tency to be top-10, top-five the whole year? I’m not sure yet. But ev­ery­one can beat ev­ery­one at the mo­ment and I think that’s what’s so good about women’s ten­nis right now, you don’t know who is go­ing to win the tour­na­ment at the end whereas in men’s ten­nis it’s a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent.”

Vekic will be­gin her 2019 sea­son at the Bris­bane In­ter­na­tional in Aus­tralia tak­ing place from De­cem­ber 30 to Jan­uary 6.

Mak­ing a fist of it: Vekic has learned from her early rise.

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