By David Kane
Sometimes on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tennis Tour, fans find that their favorite rising stars really grow up fast. One minute, they’re teenagers struggling to qualify for major tournaments; the next, they’re making tour finals in countries like Uzbekistan and you’re left wondering where the time went.
Such is the case for the young 16-year-old Croatian, Donna Vekic. If you have never heard of her, fear not. Although she has competed on the junior circuit, the descriptors “prodigy” or “junior champion” are withheld because, to be fair, her junior results have been quite middling in a division where success and failure is simply foreshadowing.
Before this summer, I had only known of Vekic in passing as the player against whom controversial fireball Yulia Putintseva had audibly and turbulently fought back at during the 2011 Junior Wimbledon.
Despite Vekic’s relative anonymity, when I posited to my twitter followers which players I should be on the lookout for during the US Open qualies, many were quick to point me towards the promising talent.
When I got to Court 6, I could see why; the tall blonde in the flowing Nike dress cut an impressive figure for a 16-year-old. While most of the top junior girls look like girls, Vekic already looked the part of a woman looking to break through on the woman’s tour. More importantly, she played like a woman; with a big serve and equally ferocious groundstrokes, this ready-for-primetime player looked decidedly out of place on such a small outer court.
Unseeded in qualifying, the Croat had a good week in Flushing before her age and inexperience reared at a most unfortunate time; two games from the US Open main draw, Vekic wilted in the New York heat and veteran Edina Gallovits-Hall took care of the rest, winning the last 10 games and making the youngster look out of place all over again.
What could have been a disappointing end became that crucially aforementioned foreshadowing when she arrived in Tashkent a week later, again as a qualifier. In seven matches, she only dropped one set, and claimed decisive victories against No. 4 seed Magdelena Rybarikova and No. 6 seed Bojana Jovanovski en route to her first WTA tour final. Despite losing to Caroline Wozniacki’s US Open conqueror Irina Camelia Begu at week’s end, Donna Vekic had arrived, in fairly emphatic style given the dearth of prior results pointing to said arrival. It just over one year, Vekic has risen over 700 ranking spots and hit a career-high No. 121 this past Monday.
Given how past players have made the junior to WTA transition over the last few years, Vekic’s run has many scratching their heads. Junior results aren’t a fluke; a look at the last 10 US Open girls’ singles champions reads like a “Who’s Who” of the WTA (both today and tomorrow). Her talent cannot be denied, and the main (albeit bizarre) question that seems to be at hand is how Vekic’s WTA-friendly game failed to translate in the junior ranks.
One need only look to the Williams sisters for the answer; the two had abstained entirely from junior tournaments and their father had been heavily criticized at the time for doing so. Venus turned pro the year Meilin Tu won the girls’ US Open, and Tara Snyder the next when Serena entered the pro ranks. With that perspective, suddenly an aberration looks like destiny.