MELBOURNE, Australia - No.19 seed Donna Vekic dispatched former World No.1 Maria Sharapova, 6-3, 6-4 to reach the second round of the Australian Open for a fourth straight year.
"I'm really happy to win today," she told former WTA star Jelena Dokic during her on-court interview before saluting the crowd for their support.
The Happy Slam is the only one where Vekic is yet to reach the second week, and the Croat kept hopes of completing that box set alive after a tricky encounter with Sharapova - who received a wildcard into the main draw after struggling with injuries - and winning in 81 minutes on Rod Laver Arena.
"I think what [coach Torben Beltz and I] have been doing on the practice court, it's all coming together on the match court, as well," Vekic elaborated, in her post-match press conference. "We keep improving, and that's a good thing, you know. We keep going forward."
Vekic and Sharapova last played at the 2018 French Open, where the Russian won in two close sets. Since then, Vekic has enjoyed a career surge: reaching her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at last year's US Open, making her Top 20 debut, and qualifying for the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai.
"I really enjoyed being on Rod Laver today," said Vekic. "I think when I found out who I was playing, I knew it was going to be on a big court, so I was happy about that. I enjoy playing on the big stage."
"It definitely didn't feel like playing a wildcard," Vekic continued. "Maria is a great player, a champion. I practiced with her in the off-season, and it was my first practice set, actually, and she's been practicing for a while. She killed me, like, 6-1. I knew it was going to be a tough match and that I had to bring my A-game."
Sharapova, by contrast, missed most of the 2019 season due to a shoulder injury that kept her off the court for months at a time, forcing her out of Roland Garros and into a retirement in the first round of Wimbledon.
"I can speak about my struggles and the things that I've gone through with my shoulder, but it's not really in my character to," Sharapova said. "So, you know, I was there. I put myself out there. As tough as it was, I finished the match and, yeah, it wasn't the way that I wanted."
That lack of match play likely contributed to a slow start for Sharapova, who played just one match in 2020 - losing a third set tie-break to Jennifer Brady at the Brisbane International. Fresh off a quarterfinal run at the Adelaide International, Vekic raced ahead 5-1 before the Russian began to find her rhythm, breaking the No.19 seed in her first attempt at serving for the set and earning a break point to get things back on serve.
While Vekic shrugged off the pressure and took the set, Sharapova carried that momentum into the second, taking a 4-1 lead of her own. The 23-year-old turned the tide once more, rolling through the final five games to secure her spot in the second round.
"It's tough to say I'm on the right track right now 45 minutes after the match," Sharapova said. "But, I mean, there is no way to get out of it except to keep believing in yourself, because if you do do all the right things and you don't believe in yourself, then that's probably a bad formula."
In all, Vekic played a clean match with 18 winners to 17 unforced errors, and while Sharapova hit one more winner, she ended the match with 31 unforced errors. Vekic enjoyed a perfect break point conversion rate (four of four) and won 66% of points behind her first serve.
"I just felt that at the beginning of the second set I was making too many unforced errors," Vekic stated. "[Sharapova] stepped up her game and I didn't follow. It took me a little bit to adjust. But definitely happy that I could come back in the second set, you know, and not go three sets. I raised my level, and I'm happy I managed to finish it."
Awaiting her there will be a tricky opponent as she faces the winner of Alizé Cornet and Romanian qualifier Monica Niculescu.