Sixteen years of age, blonde, suave and waltzing on the grass at Birmingham? Sounds like we are back to the days of 2003 when tennis’s ultimate glam queen Maria Sharapova made a noteworthy debut, when she made it to the Birmingham semi-finals.
However, this is a decade later and the player impressing everyone is 16-year-old Croatian Donna Vekic, who is not only playing crisp and smart grasscourt tennis, but is also bold enough to quickly shrug off comparisons with Sharapova.
“That’s very nice but she has her career and I have my career,” Donna puts a resounding full stop to all the comparisons, which will nonetheless continue to flow in. The Croat who trains in London under the tutelage of David Felgate has already ratcheted up the rankings in an amazing fashion and is now the youngest teenager sitting pretty within the world’s top 100.
Saturday’s achievement of reaching the first career grasscourt final will propel Birmingham debutante Donna further up the rankings, and she has a massive chance of breaking into the top 60 if she captures the title on Sunday.
A promising talent announces her superb grasscourt supremacy just days before Wimbledon and there will undoubtedly be expectations of her replicating Sharapova’s dazzling 2004 Birmingham-Wimbledon double.
Donna, grounded and headstrong, refuses to bask in the glory and underlines it is not such a dreamy job in the days of the remarkable and in-form Serena Williams and determined Sharapova herself.
“It’s nice to know, but I don’t think it’s possible at the moment,” she answers back. But she does ooze of confidence when she points out, “But I am playing really well at the moment so hopefully I can get through a few rounds.”
Perhaps this headstrong attitude and the belief that she can remain toe-to-toe with the best in the business are inspiring her to flourish. At Tashkent last year, Donna displayed her grittiness for the first time, when she became the youngest player in six years to reach a WTA final and that too as a qualifier.
On Saturday in Birmingham, she edged past the same player she had soundly beaten in Tashkent last fall – 2009 champion Magdalena Rybarikova – and it wasn’t a smooth joyride. She had to overcome some brilliant craftiness from the Slovak – and her own frustration – before putting the final nail in the coffin in three sets.
That Vekic is maturing fast, and most importantly feels at home on the green turf are being validated strongly by her continued string of notable performances during the English summer.
Agile, hard-hitting and aggressive, her game is backed by a decent serve and a sizzling flat forehand. She has been a real joy to watch this whole week at the Edgbaston Priory Club, where she has painted the lines with unabashed glee at times as well as exercised caution and controlled aggression when required.
Vekic surely has the qualities to dominate the tour one day, even receiving certification from one of the Tour’s legends, Chris Evert. The former World No. 1 has expressed solidarity for the fledgling teenager and has even called her an ‘exceptional talent.’
Apart from Vekic’s innate drive and unwavering will, her coaching has to be given a lot of credit for her march up the rankings. She was taken under the wings of Tim Henman’s former coach Felgate, and she is a product of Junior Tennis Coaching in Northwood, London which was set up by businessman Clive Sherling.
She completely entrusts her full-time coach, Felgate with her decisions on the Tour and it is his conviction that is aiding Donna to reap the rewards now. After Donna played all the junior Grand Slams, Felgate manoeuvred her career around the ITF pro circuit and Challengers rather than dwelling on the junior circuit.
Donna doesn’t have an illustrious resume to boast of at the junior Grand Slams but Felgate’s initiative of thrusting her into the senior circuit has done the trick. It has given the teenager countless opportunities to get used to the transition phase and find her own rhythm against the big girls from a very early age. With that has come the added sense of level-headedness, maturation, intrepidity and perhaps a certain joy at being able to hold her own against the established brigade.
The Osijek-born Croat’s exploits on the grass are a nostalgic throwback to the days of the bold and carefree Steffi Grafs, the Martina Hingises and the Sharapovas brandishing their racquets, and lifting the coveted Venus Rosewater Dish. Teenagers ruling the roost at majors have been passé since Sharapova clinched the US Open at the tender age of 19 seven years back.
But for the first time in many years, there has been a teenage revolution this year on the elite stage with a host of audacious and diligent youngsters rising to devour experienced opponents at Slams and make the world sit up and take notice. Certainly Vekic is now on the front row of those teenagers expected to be the face of the next generation.
At a time when women’s tennis has the oldest world No. 1 at its helm – the 31-year-old Serena Williams and the Tour has a bevy of 30 + champions still going strong, the breakout of this new breed of sprightly and zealous teens makes for a very interesting contrast.
One such stark contrast will be observed when the soon-to-be-17 Vekic locks horns with the 30-year-old Daniela Hantuchova in the Birmingham final. Another glaring difference between the two finalists which will grab the attention is that Vekic was born in 1996 while Hantuchova played her first pro event in 1998.
For the resurgent Slovak, who has earlier reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals, this is the second final appearance at Edgbaston Priory Club and with her wealth of experience and knowledge she will surely try to come out all guns blazing.
But for Donna this is a new, unexplored territory where she has no pressure to handle. Perhaps that relaxing approach might just motivate this exuberant youngster to go one better than Tashkent and engrave her name on the Maud Watson trophy.