Grass-Court Report: Birmingham Breakout

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BIRMINGHAM, England—One of the worst things that can happen to you at a tennis tournament is that you make the wrong choice about where to spend your time and miss out on something great or exciting or controversial. Worse than that is if you miss out on something great or exciting or controversial even though it’s happening right in front of you.

Something like that happens to me today at the AEGON Classic. After being suspended for lack of light at 2-2 in the third set last night, having the start delayed by rain and being rained off after three games, Sabine Lisicki and Alison Riske are finally getting to the business end of their entertaining match. Unfortunately, I’ve got back to Court 1 — which has no seating — too slowly after the last shower sent us all scurrying, and I’m two or three people back in the small but dense and determined Birmingham crowd. Craning my neck for a viewing window, I see slivers of the exchanges between Lisicki and Riske as they exchange holds, ducking and rising on tiptoe to keep the ball in view.

Suddenly, after a long, scrambling point at 4-5, 15-0 on Lisicki’s serve, the German marches towards the net and starts talking persistently to the umpire. Whatever answer she gets — I can’t hear a word of the exchange — doesn’t satisfy her, and the WTA supervisor is duly summoned to the court. Lisicki talks and talks and gestures, and I feel an embarrassed need to answer the people around me who want to know what’s going on, to inform those in the Twittersphere who are following this (non-televised) match on a scoreboard. Lisicki eventually returns to the baseline, makes a cluster of errors and gives Riske a look at a second serve on match point, which the young American duly strokes into the corner.

Later it turns out, as Lisicki reveals in press with sunny smiles and stubborn despondency flickering over her face like the sunshine and showers over Edgbaston today, that she was (unsuccessfully) appealing for the point to be awarded to her on the basis that Riske’s yell of ‘Come on!’ came while she still had a play on the final ball (which she hit out). This only makes matters worse; my rain-spattered, soggy notebook records every point of the match, including the disputed one — details of poor dropshots, great gets, ill-advised lobs — but I don’t remember Riske’s shout at all.  A finely-balanced encounter swung decisively on a single incident, and I was just close enough to know that I failed to capture its essence.

Nobody wants to miss out on something big happening right in front of their eyes, which is why one of my priorities in coming to the AEGON Classic was to catch a glimpse of Donna Vekic, around whom hype is rapidly gathering. It’s been more than a glimpse, as it turns out; I watched Vekic beat Sorana Cirstea handily yesterday, and today she battles former champion Magdalena Rybarikova to make it her second WTA final at the tender age of 16. If she wins tomorrow against Daniela Hantuchova, she will be the youngest player to collect a WTA title since Tamira Paszek in 2006; a more auspicious comparison, already being drawn, is with Maria Sharapova, who reached the final here as a 16-year-old qualifier in 2003 before claiming her first Wimbledon the following year.

I wonder, if I had seen a 16-year-old Sharapova storming to the final here, I would have recognized instantly that I was seeing a future champion. I’m not sure I see it in Vekic, or if I do, that potential doesn’t really reside in her game, which is strong and solid but not distinct from any number of other big, clean hitters in any way that’s immediately apparent to me. What has been talked about a lot this week is her attitude and composure; she doesn’t carry herself like a 16-year-old but with a self-assurance far beyond her years. On court today against Rybarikova, there’s only one moment when she looks as young as she is to me: the first is when she smacks a forehand into the corner to draw an error from Rybarikova to take the first-set tiebreak, then follows the regulation ‘Come on!’ with a self-conscious flick of her blonde braid back over her shoulder in an endearingly naïve fashion, like the high-school girl she is (although she admits later she hasn’t been doing much schoolwork this week).

In contrast to Alison Riske, who enters the press room after her three-set loss to Hantuchova with a friendly if dreamy hello, Vekic seems substantially more guarded and isn’t flummoxed by any of the wildly diverse questions put to her. Her answers, given in a level tone with a quasi-British accent (her coach, David Felgate, is British, and her speech carries inflections indicative of London, where she spends about half of her time training), demonstrate a precocious mastery of the art of responding to a question without giving too much away. Her poise is notable, but it isn’t the mature demeanor she displays here that interests and impresses me. While I reserve judgement on Vekic until she’s had a couple more years on tour — ‘wait and see’ isn’t a sexy answer, but it’s surely the only honest one at this point — if it does turn out that in five years or so we’re all reminiscing about the first time that we saw Donna Vekic, I know I’ll remember the third set of her match against Rybarikova. Bouncing back from losing the second set 2-6, recovering from 0-30 in her first service game, Vekic seeks out effective patterns of play and displays unerring attacking instincts; when she loses a point, she’s frustrated and annoyed, but she’s not shaken. Halfway through the set, around the time she gets the crucial break of serve, it occurs to me: Vekic isn’t just out there trying her best, fighting to win; she’s out there working, with a degree of professionalism and a core coolness that impresses me more than anything else.

Curiously enough, she has one other win over Rybarikova; they played in Tashkent, on the way to Vekic’s first final, in which she admits to being tired and too nervous to enjoy it — something she hopes won’t be the case tomorrow against Hantuchova. ‘If I win, I win, that’s great, but you know, I have lots more years to play and lots more titles to win,’ she says. I don’t know, but I’m interested in finding out.

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