ZHUHAI, China – Donna Vekic was at an Italian restaurant in Wuhan, dining with her team after a defeat to an inspired Ons Jabeur, when she called the waiter over with an idea.
“They had pizza on the menu, so I asked if they could make a Nutella pizza for dessert,” the US Open quarterfinalist explained to a rapt audience at the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai. “He didn’t know what it was, so I googled a picture of it and said, ‘You have it at breakfast.’ He ended up going downstairs to the breakfast restaurant and brought a whole new jar of Nutella.
“All of the waiters and chefs came over to look at it when it arrived. They started putting powdered sugar on it but I thought it was parmesan cheese, so I yelled, ‘NOOOO!’ and everyone jumped back because they were shocked.
“It was a fight, but my god, it was good.”
It was this level of tenacity that has been a hallmark of the 23-year-old’s breakthrough season, one that saw crack the Top 20, reach a first major quarterfinal, and end the year at the WTA Elite Trophy, satisfying a goal she set with coach Torben Beltz before the season began.
“It’s the first time in a while that I actually achieved my pre-season goals,” she admitted on Monday afternoon. “I used to set them pretty high and maybe they weren’t very realistic, but I felt like this one was I could earn.”
Vekic carried momentum from the end of 2018, when she made her first WTA Premier semifinal at the Toray Pan Pacific Open, in a big way at the Brisbane International, stunning then-World No.9 Kiki Bertens en route to another final four finish.
“Normally I’ve had terrible starts to the year, even if I had a good off-season! This was the first time I actually had a good start to the year, but I also had some confidence left over from good wins I had at the end of the year before. That really helped me start the year well.”
Solid on all surfaces, she was a finalist indoors at the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy – and again on grass at the Nature Valley Open – and rolled into the second week of the French Open before earning her proudest result in Flushing Meadows, where she rallied from match point down to defeat Julia Goerges in the Round of 16.
“I’ve always been a fighter and a competitor. I won some crazy matches this year, saving match points. In those moments when I was losing, I really believed I could turn these matches around. Until the last point, I believed I could still win. That might have been the biggest difference, because where I was still fighting, I didn’t always believe I could actually win.”
The Croat credits coach Beltz, who aims to evolve his pupil into an ever-more aggressive player, with shaping her game into one that can compete with the best in the world, and promises even more improvements in the upcoming off-season.
"We did really good scheduling throughout the year. When I was tired, we took a break. We did a lot of good training blocs, which is really important and something I didn’t do after New York. But hey, we learn from our mistakes, right?
“I think my game is smarter, so making better choices allows me to go bigger. It comes more naturally. What we’ve been trying to do is also come into the net a lot. We agreed to work a lot on this during the off season, so hopefully you’ll be seeing more of that next year."
A fixture on the WTA circuit since she barreled into her first WTA final as a 16-year-old, Vekic is a healthy member of its ecosystem, able to enjoy an afternoon at an amusement park – where she laughingly lapped Elise Mertens in a go-kart race – don an eye-catching dress to the Zhuhai Player Party - designed by countrywoman Aleksandra Dojcinovic – and take her confident voice through a successful campaign onto the Players Council.
“For sure I had mistakes,” she said back at the US Open. “Everyone makes mistakes, especially when you're young.
“I don't know what I would change, because at those moments I thought I was making the right decisions, obviously. My family really supported me, even when they knew I was making bad decisions, they really supported me and helped me a lot, and I'm really grateful for them.”
Equally grateful is she for a long-awaited off-season, but not before taking on top seed Bertens for the fourth time this season; the Mutua Madrid Open champion has won their last two meetings, most recently at the China Open.
“I remember the Player Party in Beijing; it was the day after I lost to somebody, 7-6 in the third,” she recalled with her eyes closed at the Zhuhai Style Suite, opening one wide at Bertens as the two were getting their hair done. Both burst out laughing.
The two kick off play for the Azelea Group on Stadium Court on Tuesday.
All photos ©Jimmie48/WTA.