It’s not easy being a teenager. Throw in the pressures of performing at a Grand Slam and you’ve got the potential recipe for a meltdown. But not if you’re Donna Vekic.
Playing in her first Grand Slam main draw, the 16-year-old Croatian iced her first-round match 6-1 6-2 against No.66 Andrea Hlavackova to coolly move through to the second round in just 72 minutes. No sweat it seemed.
“I was quite nervous at the beginning, but as the match went on I relaxed and started playing my tennis,” says Vekic.
Vekic’s tennis is powerful. Tall and strong, she hits the ball like a player who has been on the tour for years. Her strong serve is backed up by flat ground strokes and a level of maturity not generally attributed to 16-year-olds.
“I definitely didn’t expect for it to be that easy. She’s a great player and she played better in the second set but I can’t really complain at that win.”
Vekic says this with absolute sincerity – there’s nothing brash about this tall, athletic, well-spoken teenager. Blonde hair and a warm smile will make Vekic a very hot property in the coming years, provided her ranking continues to rise. And the fact that she has had an agent from the age of at least 11 is an indication that nothing is being left to chance with her career.
Sitting in a small interview room, Vekic smiles as she politely answers – in flawless English – each question from a surprisingly large press contingent. So large, in fact, the press conference venue has to be moved due to the unexpected turnout of journalists, all of whom are in search of tennis’s next big thing. Vekic is besieged by questions:
“What’s it like to have all this attention?”
“It’s nice I suppose, but I have to stay focused on my match,” says Vekic.
“[Does it feel] a bit strange?”
“Yes, a little bit.”
“When you first came to England did you speak any English?”
“Yes, I did. I learned English when I was in America. I went there when I was quite little.”
“Has anyone asked you if you want to play for Britain yet?”
“No they haven’t, I’m still waiting,” she smiles.
“Would you like to?”
“No, I’m very happy playing for Croatia. Us Croatians have a big Croatian heart.”
And it’s not just journalists who are flocking to see and talk to Vekic. Despite her first-round match being played out on the very modest Court 20, former world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki – Vekic’s second-round opponent – took her place in the temporary seating to get a first-hand look at her.
It will be the biggest test of Vekic’s career to date and will be played not in the virtual anonymity of the Melbourne Park back courts, but rather on Hisense Arena.
“[It will be] very exciting to play in front of a big crowd and on a big court. I’ve never experienced something like that before and I’m looking forward to it.”
Currently ranked No.111 to Wozniacki’s No.10, Vekic is the highest ranked 16-year-old in the world. Comparisons with other prodigies are inevitable, as are the questions about whether or not she’s afraid of flaming out. She’s not.
In a sport that is known for careers ending before players are old enough to legally drink or drive, Vekic’s progress will be monitored closely.
She finished her junior career after Wimbledon 2012 and, surprisingly, she reveals that she “wasn’t very good at juniors”.
“I did play all the Slams, but I think when I started playing seniors I adjusted to that game. It’s not easy playing juniors after that … [It’s a] different style.”
It’s a similar path that fellow 16-year-old Ashleigh Barty is taking as she works to break into the top 100. The two met two weeks ago at the Hopman Cup where Vekic was a hitting partner and Barty a member of Team Australia.
And should the two continue to develop as they have to date, they could very well become on-court rivals.
“She’s the same age as me, very talented, a very humble girl,” says Vekic when asked about Barty. “She’s going to be a great player in the future and hopefully we’ll be battling for the No.1 and No.2 spots in the future.
“If she keeps working hard and I keep working hard it could definitely happen.”
Rules are in place to limit the number of matches teenagers can play on the WTA Tour. These sanctions have been put in place to ensure that success is capped and emerging stars are not dulled by the pressure of expectation.
“Every athlete has some sort of pressure you know, I always keep saying that, and I definitely have my friends who help me get through everything in life – good and bad stuff
“[I also have] my team around me that helps me so much and without them [none] of this would be possible.”
Donna Vekic plays Caroline Wozniacki third on Hisense Arena today.