Down match point to Kaia Kanepi in the third round, Donna Vekic unloaded over six months of frustration into a screaming forehand winner, one that ultimately turned the match around and put her into the second week of the Australian Open.
“I was actually pretty pissed that I was a match point down, because the game before I had a couple of break points on her serve, and I thought I was playing better,” she said after the 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4 win. “I just really went for my shots, and in the tie-break I felt like, ‘Okay, this set is mine.’”
Vekic had certainly looked ready to take what was hers after capping off a breakthrough 2019 season with a maiden major quarterfinal at the US Open and Top 20 finish. She began the following season auspiciously enough, reaching a quarterfinal in Adelaide and sending Maria Sharapova into retirement in Melbourne. But COVID-19 soon set in, and the lockdown that followed threatened her climb towards the top of women’s tennis.
“I remember being in Indian Wells and calling my parents to tell them that the tournament was canceled,” she recalled after knocking out Wang Yafan to snap a six-match losing streak on Tuesday. “My dad was like, ‘What do you mean? That’s not possible!’ I had to say, ‘Well, it is possible because it just happened.’ He didn’t believe me!”
A member of the WTA Players’ Council, Vekic joined her fellow representatives on bi-weekly calls with the tour’s top brass as the initial shutdown stretched into the summer.
“That was a crazy time, but everyone was just happy to be on calls, because it wasn’t like we had anything better to do. Everyone wanted to come up with some kind of solution to get back to playing as soon as possible.
“At the same time, it was tiring because tournaments were getting canceled week by week, so you always had to be a little bit ready to go back on a moment’s notice. It wasn’t a situation where we were given a five-month break up front, and so we could use the time to recover, rest, and then prepare.”
Just when action was set to resume, Torben Beltz, the coach who had overseen her two-year rise of nearly 40 spots up the WTA rankings, took to social media to announce their split, citing a mutual decision that Vekic disputes both now and at the time—posting an emoji-laden response on Twitter.
“I didn’t want to stop," she said. "It was just a very strange situation, because the reasons he put were completely wrong and not true. I was like, ‘What the hell?’ I was a little bit surprised.”
She breaks into laughter at this point, hoping to change the conversation.
“Come on, ask me about the weather today! I’m in the garden, sunbathing right now. I’m working on my tan lines.”
A far cry from the clouds that followed her last fall. On top of adjusting to life with new coach Sam Sumyk—who has worked with the likes of Victoria Azarenka and Garbiñe Muguruza—the 24-year-old bristled beneath the confines of the so-called "bubble life," and ended her turbulent year on a losing streak that continued into 2021.
“I’ve been talking to other players, and I think the WTA, ATP, we all need to come up with a better solution, of how we’re going to get through this year. If we have to be in bubbles for every tournament, I can tell you players are going to go insane.
“The Players’ Council is planning a meeting with the medical team soon, to see what changes we can make. It’s very difficult because there are players who may not be as responsible. Some will come to site with COVID symptoms, for example, so that makes things tougher. But we have to look at the mental health side of things, as well.”
In a city that offers the Croat her sought-after stability, she has flourished. The quarantine bloc of practices with good friend Ajla Tomljanovic helped find her missing confidence and translate her pre-season improvements onto the match court. Starting with an emotional win over Wang, she next swept aside Roland Garros semifinalist Nadia Podoroska before surviving the in-form Kanepi, who had dethroned defending champion Sofia Kenin in the previous round, on Saturday.
“It’s tough to have goals given these circumstances, but with Sam, the main goal is to improve my tennis, play a lot of matches, and win as many of them as possible," said the No. 28 seed, who is enjoying a rental home with her team, cooking and going for walks around Albert Park. "We’re just taking things one week at a time, because things are changing that quickly. Thinking too far ahead is not really my thing right now.”
Vekic has at least began taking change as a challenge, citing the suddenly crowd-less Margaret Court Arena with helping her close out Kanepi.
“I guess I have to win one more match or two more matches to have crowd again, I don't know,” she said as she prepares to take on Jennifer Brady. “I hope to have another match here with them.”