Five months off, but no rust for Donna Vekic, who wins in WTA's return

Five months off, but no rust for Donna Vekic, who wins in WTA's return

“I was definitely a little bit surprised with my level today, I have to say,” Vekic told after dispatching Arantxa Rus, 6-1, 6-2, on Monday in Sicily.

Is Monday the start of a new tennis chapter? Or will it be an unfinished page?

We won't know that answer for some time, or what the future of the 2020 tennis season entails in a period defined by the word unprecedented. On a day that saw Madrid reportedly become the latest tournament to cancel its plans as a result of a new wave of alarming COVID-19 trends, the WTA tour officially reopened its doors in Palermo, Italy.

And what we now know is that Donna Vekic will go down in the books as the first player to win a tour-level match in the post-shutdown era.

Stepping on court to open play in the late afternoon, observers would be unaware that Vekic was playing her first WTA match in five months had it not been for prior knowledge of tennis’ timeline. Outside of a slight dip for five minutes in the second set, the Croatian channeled the anticipation of competing again into her execution on court to overpower Arantxa Rus, 6-1, 6-2, in 76 minutes.

“I won eight games in a row at one point. I was definitely a little bit surprised with my level today, I have to say,” Vekic told afterwards. “I have been practicing really well but I haven’t played a match in five months, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

“Before the match, I said to myself, ‘just stay calm, even if you’re not playing amazing. Just hang in there, be competitive, stay tough.’” I was playing really well, so it’s a good feeling.”

Vekic’s confidence was on full display, but peaked at 3-2, 15-15 in the second set. Engaged in an extended rally with Rus, the world No. 24 was forced to come further in than expected after her opponent’s backhand stab barely cleared the net. Vekic replied with her own backhand brilliance in ending the point with a stunning drop shot.

“I hope that’s going to make hot shot of the day! I was really happy with my movement today,” Vekic exclaimed. “I definitely feel very fit on court, I thought I was moving great. I was a little surprised to be able to get that.”

Competitors arrived in Sicily on Friday for COVID-19 testing as part of the tournament’s protocols. Vekic previously tested negative for coronavirus in Zadar, Croatia after attending the Adria Tour, a planned four-weekend series that was ultimately abandoned following an outbreak intensified by the event’s lack of social-distancing measures. This week marks Vekic's debut in Palermo, one that will stay with her given the requirements it took to receive the green light.

“I had a couple of tests so far. The one here on Friday was the most painful one,” Vekic said. “I had tears running down my face for three minutes after she went up to my brain and gave it a good mix. So that was interesting. The rules are really strict here on site, so as long as everyone has some common sense and tries to be careful, we’re going to be fine.”

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Several replacement protocols emerged during a series of exhibitions. The racquet tap served as an alternative to handshakes. Ball kids, if even included, were no longer responsible for player towels. Tennis balls were marked for players to track on court. Vekic appeared elated with the opportunity to get back to her day job under restructured conditions, which in Palermo, permits limited fans to attend.

As the 24-year-old found out Monday, however, everyone has their own delineation of a safe space.

“I thought it was really weird today at the net, when the umpire was like, ‘stay close to the service line.’ I was like, ‘what? That’s not five meters away. That’s not social distancing, that’s extreme distancing,’” Vekic said. “It’s strange because we have to be socially distant, but everyone’s been tested negative. So a lot of things are not making sense right now.

“It’s really great to see everyone again. I saw Maria (Sakkari) in Monaco, so we were hanging out. Really happy to see her again. Definitely miss all my WTA friends. I’m just really happy to be playing matches again, to be competing.”

Vekic recently reunited with coach Nikola Horvat, having parted with Torben Beltz last month. The No. 6 seed will next meet wild card Elisabetta Cocciaretto, a 7-6 (1), 6-3 winner over Polona Hercog.