Learning to cope with her great expectations
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.