Hodgkinson: Vekic's Innate Ability
Published May 19, 2014 12:12
"After the rain," said Donna Vekic, who was speaking in the half-drizzle of south-west London, having broken off from a practice session at Britain's National Tennis Centre, "comes the sunshine."
This wasn't a weather forecast - though you certainly need those when training in England in the spring, even on clay courts that absorb moisture - but a metaphor about her own tennis life. There have been few sunnier occasions in Vekic's career than when the 17-year-old Croat defeated Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova in the Kuala Lumpur final to become the youngest player for eight years to win a title on the WTA. Doubtless, it was a result that would have pleased Chris Evert, who recently spent time on the practice court with Vekic at her Florida academy, and who told wtatennis.com: "Donna has a tremendous upside." But don't imagine for one moment that Vekic hasn't experienced some difficult, rainy times - her coach David Felgate disclosed that going six months without winning a match meant "she has learned some really tough lessons before her 18th birthday."
From last September's tournament in Tashkent until this March's appearance at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in California, Vekic didn't win a match. "After what happened in Birmingham last year, when Donna reached the final of the pre-Wimbledon tournament, and which got quite a lot of publicity, she thought that she would just continue on the upward curve. But that didn't happen," Felgate told wtatennis.com. "What's been great for Donna is that already before her 18th birthday, she's had huge success, and she's also had some incredibly tough times, even though it was nothing that I didn't think could happen, and haven't experienced before in my tennis career. She had got ahead of herself. And she had a few draws that weren't easy, and also there was - this is more between Donna and I - some immaturity. Some panic set in at the start of the year. She had been off-track, but at the start of the year she was back on track. And she was doing all the right things, but she was thinking, 'When am I going to win a match?'"
Given a wildcard into Indian Wells, she won a round, and then she qualified for Miami, and won a couple of matches in the main draw, one of which was a victory over a former Grand Slam champion, Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova. Those tournaments gave her the platform she needed before traveling to Malaysia. But Vekic won't forget how she felt before Indian Wells. "You really couldn't have wished for it to have turned out any better," said Felgate. "Right at this moment, it has real meaning when I say to her, 'we're not going to be resting on our laurels'. She knows what it feels like to be in that position when you're not winning matches. If she had won one or two matches at each of those tournaments, and kept the ranking ticking over, she might have been thinking, 'oh, it's all okay'. But now she knows. Donna is a confident girl - you have to be - but my job is also about keeping it humble, and keeping it real."
Vekic was 11 years old, and "a scrawny, tiny little thing" when she and Felgate, Tim Henman's former coach, first spent some time together on the practice court. "So Donna then had some success in the juniors, but the time I realized there was something different there was when she had some early success in the pros a couple of years ago. I thought, 'whoa'," said Felgate.
"Right now, I'm not going to start comparing her to anybody. I'm just trying to look at her improvement. People say, 'Yes, but look at what Martina Hingis and Maria Sharapova did at that age'. But I'm not going to start doing that. You can look at her peers. What I would say is that she gets lumped in with people saying, 'She's one of the top youngsters', and they put her in a group with players like Eugenie Bouchard and Laura Robson. But Donna is two years younger than them. As a 16-year-old, Donna got into the 2013 Australian Open. The French Open will be her sixth Grand Slam direct on entry. That's impressive."
Evert is among those who hold Vekic in high regard. "Donna has good instincts and is comfortable with intense pressure as she had success as a junior," said Evert, who shares an agent, Lawrence Frankopan of StarWing Sports, with the teenager. "David Felgate has done a wonderful job as her coach. A couple of times, I've been on the court with her and David - before and after this year's Sony Open in Miami. And we worked mainly on moving - lots of quick moving drills. This is the one area that can improve as she has had a big growth spurt which slows one down a bit."
While Felgate believes that Vekic's serve and forehand are developing into big weapons - he noted that she is starting to serve more aces, and that she is becoming more "dominant" with her forehand - he has always felt that there is much more to the Eastern European than pure technical ability. "With Donna, it's not just about forehands and backhands; her heart and her head are so important. If you look at some of the match-ups, you feel that she has no right to win a match, so how did she win that match? It's down to an innate ability. And she constantly wants to improve - she's desperate to improve."
Mark Hodgkinson is a tennis journalist and author based in London. He is currently working on 'Secrets of The Locker Room', which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2015.