TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - It has been a breakthrough week for 16-year-old Croat Donna Vekic, making the final of the Tashkent Open in her first WTA main draw - the youngest to make it this far at a WTA event in six years.
Before this week Vekic had played WTA qualifying twice but didn't make it out of there, at Kuala Lumpur and the US Open earlier this year, but this week she won all of her qualifying rounds in straight sets to make her first WTA main draw. And it didn't take her long to hang with the big girls, as she upset No.4 seed Magdalena Rybarikova right out of the blocks in the first round.
"It's my first Top 100 win and it really feels great," Vekic said of her 76(3) 63 win over the No.54-ranked Rybarikova that day. "I was very nervous when I was up 5-3 in the first set with three set points, but then I was able to play confidently in the tie-break and the rest of the match. I'm very happy I managed to win!"
Vekic scored another Top 100 victory in the second round, advancing past World No.91 Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino in straight sets, 62 62.
"It's an amazing feeling for me. I'm absolutely thrilled to make my first WTA quarterfinal," she said. "The points are important, but developing my game and developing as an athlete is more important for me in the next few years."
And it didn't stop there, either - Vekic stunned No.64-ranked, No.6-seeded Bojana Jovanovski in the quarterfinals, 64 64. It was her third straight Top 100 victory and all three of them had won WTA titles this year, too - Rybarikova in Washington DC, Arruabarrena-Vecino in Bogotá and Jovanovski in Baku.
"Reaching the semifinals of a WTA tournament has not sunken in yet," Vekic beamed. "I went into the match with a lot of confidence, going for every ball - I've won against Top 100 players three days in a row and it's very exciting."
There was a different challenge awaiting her in the semifinals in Eva Birnerova. Not a Top 100 player - she is ranked No.133 - but someone who has done very well here before, reaching her first WTA final here a year ago. And for the first time this week Vekic lost a set - but the Croat still got the win, 61 36 61.
"Eva was a difficult player and did not give me any rhythm," Vekic said. "I lost my focus in the second set, but it is important to win on days like these."
Vekic is the youngest player to reach a WTA final since a 15-year-old Tamira Paszek won the former WTA event in Portoroz in September 2006.
"It's quite hard to believe all of this. It feels like a dream," Vekic said. "But it's a reality and I am so happy to make my first final at a WTA tournament."
A native of Osijek, Croatia but currently based in London, Vekic stopped playing juniors this summer to concentrate on the pros. "I stopped playing juniors after I lost in the junior quarterfinals at Wimbledon this year - I decided my junior tennis was over and wanted to concentrate on the senior circuit. It's a totally different ball game - I felt more adjusted to the senior level. I feel comfortable.
"I don't think like a 16-year-old. In tennis one has to grow fast, and I think I have matured fast. I love tennis and want to be playing. I have to get stronger physically and mentally and develop my game. I hope to first get into the Top 150 and probably play at a Grand Slam tournament in the near future."
Vekic will break that Top 150 after this week, going to around No.135 by reaching the final and approximately No.120 if she wins the title.
But the beyond-her-years focus kicks in again whenever there's mention of achievements beyond the tennis court. "My aim is to play every match better than the last one. I don't care if I lose too, because I learn from the matches I lose. I've worked really hard this year and I believe hard work pays off.
"I try not to think about rankings too much. If you think about those things too much you may lose focus. All I want is to play well and do well."