Donna Vekic began the decade as a teen phenom, reaching her first WTA final at just 16 years old. Now 22, the Croat is on the precipice of a long-awaited breakthrough after an encouraging string of 2018 results, including a maiden run to the second week of Wimbledon.
"I’m really happy about the season," she told me in December. "The goal at the beginning of the year was to make the second week of a Grand Slam, and I did that at Wimbledon. I was really happy with that. I definitely feel like I made a next step."
Ending the year at a career-high ranking, Vekic nonetheless felt a sense of unfinished business; a goal of being seeded for a Grand Slam was still outstanding. With a sixth Top 10 win at this week's Brisbane International, she may yet find herself bolded in the draw, but will be one to watch regardless of where she lands.
In an exclusive interview with wtatennis.com, Vekic discussed her evolving approach to the sport, her strong team - led by coach Torben Beltz - and her aim to move forward, both on the court and up the rankings.
1. Vekic kick started her season with a full circle Wimbledon result.
Players don't often get such a clear shot at redemption, yet there Vekic was, back at Wimbledon, on another big court, against another Top 10 player one year removed from her heartbreaking loss to Johanna Konta on Centre.
"That was a great match," she recalled. When I look back, it was probably one of the biggest matches of my career, even though I lost!"
This time it was Sloane Stephens, fresh off a run to the final at Roland Garros, on the other side of the net. Sweeping the opening set, the second set featured multiple momentum shifts and a titanic final game before Vekic claimed the statement victory, her first over a Top 5 player.
"I felt a lot of pressure heading into the grass court season this year. I made the semis of Nottingham and lost to Jo again. It was kind of a relief, and it made me more focused and readier to give my best at Wimbledon."
2. She credits a shift in mindset and increased maturity for her career turnaround.
The win over Stephens was a long time coming for Vekic, who had lost three of her last four matches against Top 10 opposition in three sets.
"In the last couple of years, I felt like I should be making better results, but I wasn’t. I was expecting a lot of myself. Every time I would play a top player, it would be a really close match, maybe three sets, but I would lose. This year, I proved I could turn these matches into a win in the end. That was really important for me."
Starting 2018 with Beltz - longtime coach of former World No.1 Angelique Kerber - she reassessed her goals over the off-season and aimed for a result she knew she'd have four chances to achieve.
"In years past, I would set a ranking, and I would always put so much pressure on myself, and I didn’t really like that."
3. Flanked by a strong team, Vekic aims for controlled aggression on court in 2019.
Though Vekic fell to eventual semifinalist Julia Goerges at the All England Club, she backed up the result with a runner-up finish at the Citi Open - narrowly losing to former World No.2 Svetlana Kuznetsova - and a first Premier semifinal at the Toray Pan Pacific Open, where she scored two more Top 10 wins over Stephens and Caroline Garcia.
"That gave me a lot of confidence moving forward," she noted.
An apt choice of words from a player who spent the last 14 months working with Beltz on her movement, recently adding fitness trainer Zlatko Novkovic (formerly with 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic) to the mix.
"At the end of the year, we started working more on my volleys and my net game. Hopefully next year, you’ll see me at the net a little bit more!"
Key to an improved net game is the serve, a shot that could well be her secret weapon in 2019.
"I do have a big serve from time to time, but the goal is to make it more consistent. I have days where I’m serving unbelievably, and the others where I’m not serving great at all. There isn’t really a reason for that to be happening, so my goal for next year isn’t just to serve big, but also be more consistent."
4. After nearly 10 years, Vekic's passion for the game is as strong as ever.
Ultimately, it was mentality that helped the youngster shine on the game's biggest stages in 2018.
"When I beat Sloane, I knew I was a great player on grass, and I could make a good run at Wimbledon, but I wasn’t trying to look at the draw, and just focus on my next match. In the past, I might have looked ahead, put pressure on myself and expectations to win when I wasn’t ready to do that yet."
That 2012 final in Tashkent initially made Vekic's ascent all but assured. She went on to reach another final at the Nature Valley Classic in Birmingham sixth months later before stunning then-Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova to win her first title in Kuala Lumpur.
Looking back, it might have all been too much too soon.
"If anything, I enjoy it more now," she admitted. "When I was coming up, I was winning, would play really well, and then lose in the first round several weeks in a row, and I wasn’t consistent. I always wanted to win, and had trouble accepting losses; losing was never very fun for me.
"Now, I’ve matured, I know what I need to do to win, what I have to work on, and I have a good team around me. I enjoy it more now."