LONDON, Great Britain - One year after losing a Wimbledon show-court heartbreaker against a Top 10 player, Donna Vekic swept to the biggest victory of her career in SW19 - a stunning 6-1, 6-3 first-round upset of No.4 seed Sloane Stephens.
In the second round last year, the Croat had played one of the best matches of the tournament against Johanna Konta - but came out on the wrong end of that 7-6(4), 4-6, 10-8, a loss that had her in tears at the handshake. But bringing the same quality to No.1 Court today paid off for Vekic, who powered to her third Top 10 win - and first over a Top 5 player - with a cool-headed barrage of big hitting.
"I finally got through a match like that!" she exclaimed afterwards. "It's really important for me and my confidence. The last couple of times I played against top players I was playing good, it was a good match - but I would still lose. [My team] were always saying it's gonna come, it's gonna come - and I'm happy it was today."
It was the third straight year that Vekic had played against a Top 10 player on a Wimbledon show court, having lost to Venus Williams in the first round three years ago as well. "Playing Wimbledon is special, getting to play on No.1 Court is even more special - and I'm happy I've got some good memories out of it," said a relieved Croat.
The result also continues the Roland Garros runner-up's pattern of inconsistent major results, with her US Open title and French Open final now punctuated by three first-round exits at Grand Slams - taking her total of opening losses at majors to seven in the past five years.
Two of Vekic's five WTA finals have come on grass, including the Nottingham title in 2017, and her full slate of grass warm-ups this year included another run to the Nottingham semifinals three weeks ago. Her smooth groundstrokes were clicking on the immaculately manicured lawns from the off, with the 22-year-old dictating play with powerful forehands that frequently elicited wild shanks from Stephens - who had opted out of the pre-Wimbledon events and was playing her first match on grass this year.
While Vekic was cautious to draw a link between results at warm-ups and majors, pointing out the year she had reached the Birmingham final only to lose her Wimbledon opener, she did maintain that the grass swing served an important purpose. "It's always important to get a couple matches on grass because it plays different," she said. "Grass really suits my game."
Stephens, though, defended her choice to skip it. "I had a good training block after the French," she replied. "I did more than I would normally do." The US Open champion was sanguine about the loss: "It's unfortunate," she said. "She played well. It was not too much you can do. I'm not going to, go cry, bang my racquet. No. Look, what happened, what did you learn, let's work on it. It happened. Can't dwell on it. Can't take it back."
Vekic's serve, too, was crucial. At its best, it was a major weapon: when she landed her first delivery in the first set, the World No.55 would win 87% of those points compared to Stephens' meagre 47%. But it was also something of an Achilles heel with nine double faults that repeatedly threatened to derail her hard-fought momentum. "My serve wasn't working as well today," she acknowledged afterwards. "It was a little bit windy, and against the sun as well - but I will work on that tomorrow and hopefully serve better in the next match."
But these wobbles also enabled Vekic to display some impressive grit. The 2013 Birmingham finalist has failed to close out a number of leads this year - "I am quite known to put a lot of pressure on myself," as she put it with a flash of self-awareness afterwards - and there were several moments today when her play became somewhat nervy. From a 40-0 lead in the fifth game she was embroiled in a multi-deuce tussle, and two double faults at the start of the second set resulted in a 0-2 deficit.
But in equal parts, Vekic was able to hit through her nerves - and Stephens could not transform any of them into turning points. A high-octane backhand-to-backhand rally ultimately sealed the 4-1 lead in the first set, which Vekic rode out to a 6-1 opener; a series of Stephens groundstrokes sailed long to limply concede her brief second-set lead.
In a more tightly contested second act, Vekic's cooler head was evident in two key battles. Again, the fifth game on the Stephens serve turned into a marathon - but after fighting through six deuces, particularly impressing with her backhand, Vekic sealed the break as another Stephens forehand went long - one of 26 unforced errors the 25-year-old would rack up.
And in the final game of the match, the American would come up with some of her best tennis as, serving to stay alive in the tournament, she staved off three match points. Once again, though, Vekic refused to let the game go. A phenomenal backhand down the line to save game point would prove key: one Stephens double fault and one more disappointingly netted forehand later, and Vekic had set up a second-round date with either Viktoria Kuzmova or Rebecca Peterson.