Grass-Court Report: Teen vs. Age

Sunday, June 16, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

BIRMINGHAM, England—It’s a classic confrontation of youth and experience in the AEGON Classic final, as 16-year-old Donna Vekic takes on 30-year-old Daniela Hantuchova.

The photos chosen to illustrate today’s programme encapsulate the projected narrative; while both players are in the same posture, the de rigeur fist-pump-to-box, Vekic’s sometimes severe face is illuminated by a broad smile, while Hantuchova is frowning sternly, grim-faced, as if every nerve is straining towards victory. Clearly, this is supposed to be a contest of youthful exuberance and light-hearted confidence against the seasoned professional, old enough to understand that tennis is serious business.

As so often happens, however, the match does not quite reflect expectations. World No. 61 Hantuchova appears gravely calm and positively relaxed by her standards, and it was Vekic who seems increasingly tormented by her situation, unable to enjoy it. It’s a high-quality first set from the beginning, characterized by big serving and short, crisp baseline exchanges with both players hitting cleanly. Hantuchova targets Vekic’s backhand return early on, looking to be very aggressive on her own return, and it pays dividends as youngster double-faults to give up the first break at 3-3. 

Facing some adversity seems to settle whatever nerves Vekic is feeling, and she plays a sensational game at 4-3, hitting four stunning returns off both wings to break back at love. This is precisely the sort of situation in which I would expect Hantuchova’s elegant carriage to stiffen into the familiar state of tension in which she seems locked in by her own body rather than liberated by it. At 5-6 she seems to do just that, missing two routine groundstrokes to go down 0-30. But two points from losing the first set, she soaks up one of Vekic’s best returns so far and gets the error, then plays two patient, precise rallies and produces a big serve to hold.

At 5-5 in the tiebreak, after Vekic recovers from a 2-5 deficit, Hantuchova first hits a forehand drive into the tramlines rather than the open court, then a second-ball forehand fractionally wide. I look for that familiar rigidity again. Instead, Hantuchova repeats exactly the same play on her next serve, striking a flat forehand into almost the same spot where she missed it just a few seconds ago—but this time, it gets the line. It’s a strong indication of confidence and flexibility in a mind that so often seems all too friable.

When Vekic nets a backhand on the run to lose the tiebreaker and the set, she doesn’t respond nearly so well. Issued with a code violation warning for racquet abuse, she earns a break point but can’t convert in Hantuchova’s first service game of the second set. Hands on hips, lips pressed tightly together, she stands waiting as Hantuchova goes through the old between-points ritual—turning her back on the court, shuffling her feet, adjusting her strings—and there’s the sense that something is about to explode. What it turns out to be is a clubbed forehand long that gives up the game. The teenager breaks Hantuchova at love at 1-1, then undergoes a medical time-out for a locked rib which might have given her opponent time to reflect and get nervous.

Again, the match develops contrary to expectations. After another chat with her coach, Hantuchova comes out and strikes a lovely backhand winner down the line. Vekic saves the two break points that quickly follow, but her good moments now seem to be coming from a place of instinct and frustration, rather than keeping cool and trying to solve the problem. She’s increasingly forced to scramble and run at the back of the court, as Hantuchova exploits every inch of the width of the baseline, and can’t find a way to be aggressive without giving up unforced errors.

As Hantuchova breaks back and the match gets scrappier—in every sense—vague hints of rain are felt in the air, tantalizing Vekic with the possibility of a rain delay, but it never gathers itself together enough to fall, just as Vekic can’t quite find the solution to Hantuchova’s solid, relentless groundstrokes. Vekic has to save break points at 2-3, then dig herself out of a 0-30 hole at 3-4; the omens aren’t good for her serving to stay in the match.

Vekic’s inexperience shows more clearly than it has all week at 4-5 when she drifts into mid-court, but hesitates instead of covering the net, letting Hantuchova punch the ball past her easily. At 30-30, Vekic is bent over, hands on knees, gasping for breath after putting yet another ball long on the run. Hantuchova has one last wobble to contend with when she puts a short ball wide which would have given her match point, but with the resilience that’s been her hallmark today, she shakes off the error and converts her first match point when it arrives with a series of hammered forehands, forcing Vekic to net one last time.

Vekic, to her credit, breaks into a wide, spontaneous smile as she jogs to the net to congratulate Hantuchova, but it’s the veteran who eagerly runs to celebrate with her team, coach Eduardo Nicolas and trainer Tiffany Nesfield. Nicolas worked with her in 2007 when she won Indian Wells, so there’s a sense of getting the old gang back together, but it’s another gang that Hantuchova talks about in her press conference: “It’s so nice to see all the players of my generation doing really well […] I’m really glad to be a part of that,” she says, naming Serena Williams, Roberta Vinci, and Francesca Schiavone—with whom she played a long quarterfinal that she describes as one of the most exciting matches of her career.

The past hangs heavy over the entire day—this was Hantuchova’s first WTA tournament back in 1999, and she comments drily that “It was about time to get the title”—but so does the future: In the shape of Vekic, about whom Hantuchova says that she would never have imagined being able to play someone 14 years her junior; in the form of Wimbledon, at which the unseeded Hantuchova might be able to do some damage; and in the more nebulous sense that Hantuchova still very much sees herself as evolving, as a player in process.

Asked about the mental toughness that she’s displayed this week and throughout the match today, Hantuchova is unequivocal: “It’s the age … Really being strict with myself, just like I am with being professional in so many other things. I decided it was about time to get serious about this part of my game as well.”

Better late than never, as they say; or maybe late, in this day and age, is becoming the perfect time.

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