When players save match points, they usually show relief or happiness. Donna Vekic reacted a little differently when she staved off defeat against Kaia Kanepi in their third-round match on Saturday. Down match point in the second set, the 24-year-old Croatian rifled one forehand down the line, and then swatted away the floating reply with another, disdainful forehand crosscourt. It sounded like, when the ball went for a winner, Vekic said, “Ugh!”

“I was actually pretty pissed that I was down a match point because the game before I had a couple of break points on her serve, and I thought I was playing better,” Vekic said. “I thought the momentum was switching a little bit towards my side, so I was like, ‘OK, how am I match point down? I don’t want it to be over.”

Vekic may have thought she had the momentum, but watching from the outside, Kanepi appeared to be marching to a sure victory. When the Estonian is fit and on her game, the way she had been in Australia so far this year, you can start to wonder how anyone beats her. She’s a powerful athlete who hits a big ball, and in the previous round she had dismissed the defending champion, Sofia Kenin, as if she were a junior. Looking at Kanepi’s draw after that match—she was in the less-star-studded top half—I started to have visions of her winning the Australian Open and giving a speech at her induction into the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport 10 years from now.

But there’s a reason why Kanepi doesn’t dominate the tour the way you think she might, and she reminded us of it against Vekic. For every blistering winner she cranked out, there was a routine miss, and as the match went on, the misses began to outweigh the makes. Hitting hard by itself will only take you so far at this level, because players will get used to your pace and find ways to throw it back at you. That’s what Vekic did as she slowly got her teeth into the rallies.

“It was definitely a difficult match from beginning to end,” Vekic said. “I had to fight for every point.”


Major Takeaway: Vekic's gritty win reveals wide-open draw Down Under

Major Takeaway: Vekic's gritty win reveals wide-open draw Down Under

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In this case, Vekic’s words didn’t sound clichéd; they sounded like the plain truth. She extricated herself from this match. Every game was a battle, and she didn’t look destined to win, at least to me, until the final point was played. Between rallies, she walked slowly and seemed to mull over all of her possible moves. But as they say in boxing, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

“I definitely had a plan in place today,” Vekic said. “But she was hitting it so big and so hard, sometimes it was tough. I tried to open up the court to play some angles, but when you have bombs coming at you, it's difficult, so I tried to do what I can and just run.”

Vekic is ranked 33rd, and has been as high as 19th. But she has never quite fulfilled the sky-high potential everyone believed she had when she left the juniors for the pros at 16. Points don’t come easily or automatically for her against the faster and more powerful athletes she often faces. But she is working now with Sam Sumyk, who has helped Victoria Azarenka and Garbiñe Muguruza to Grand Slam titles. Vekic may never join that pantheon, but she’s into the fourth round at the Australian Open for the first time. And she’s doing it on courts that aren’t necessarily suited to her game.

“I've never played the second week in Australia, so I think this is my worst Slam when it comes to results,” Vekic said. “I’m surprised I did it this year with the courts being so fast and all that. I don't like this trend of Grand Slams making their courts faster and faster, but maybe I'm going to start liking it from now on, I don't know.”

Vekic may not love the courts, but she has to like being in the top half of the draw. Serena, Osaka, Halep, Muguruza, Swiatek, Vondrousova, and Sabalenka are all in the bottom half, while the top half features just one major-title winner, Ash Barty, who, despite being No. 1, is not an invulnerable opponent. (There are 32 major titles represented in the bottom half, and just one on the top half.) That doesn’t mean anything is going to be easy in the second week, of course. In her next match, Vekic will play Jen Brady, a player who has rolled through her first three matches, and who is the dark-horse pick of many to come out of this half and reach the final.

“You know what,” Vekic said when she was asked about facing Brady, “everyone is playing great tennis. At this point there is—I keep saying it in the last couple of months, years, there is no easy matches on the WTA Tour. There’s no easy opponents. Everyone is playing really good tennis, so I think every match you have to be ready for a battle.”

Major Takeaway: Vekic's gritty win reveals wide-open draw Down Under

Major Takeaway: Vekic's gritty win reveals wide-open draw Down Under