It is an all too familiar story. A player shows tremendous promise as a young teen, grabs headlines and makes waves on the tennis circuit. Expectations rise, pressure heaps, and that budding talent starts taking multiple detours on the road to success.
Donna Vekic is only 22 years old, but she already feels like she’s seen it and done it all. At 16, she reached the final as a qualifier in Tashkent in 2012, which was her first-ever WTA main draw appearance. At 17, she became the youngest WTA title winner in eight years when she hoisted the trophy in Kuala Lumpur.
Legends like Chris Evert, who was Vekic’s favourite player growing up, predicted a top-10 career for the Croatian; others dubbed her the ‘next Maria Sharapova’.
But talent and hype can only take a player so far and Vekic admittedly had to go through numerous trials and tribulations on tour before she finally coming into her own these past couple of seasons.
She picked up her second WTA title in Nottingham last year, made the fourth round at a major for the first time at Wimbledon last July, and lost a close final to Svetlana Kuznetsova – after holding four match points – in Washington a few weeks later.
Vekic ends her 2018 at a career-high 34 in the world rankings and could very much secure a seeding at the Australian Open if she has a strong first week of 2019.
“I feel like I kind of made the next step this year. My goal at the beginning of the year was to make second week of a Grand Slam and I did that at Wimbledon and after that that gave me a lot of confidence and I changed a little bit mentally, I believe in myself a lot more,” Vekic told Sport360 during the Asian swing earlier this fall.
“I’m always a person who is very realistic, I don’t think I can beat everyone when I know I don’t have the level. But now I definitely believe I can play well and if I play really well then I can beat everyone because everyone is beating everyone, so why wouldn’t I?”
That mentality was on full display when Vekic defeated Sloane Stephens (No. 9), Johanna Konta (No. 43) and Caroline Garcia (No. 4) back-to-back to reach the semi-finals in Tokyo in September.
It was another reassuring week for the Monaco-based Vekic, who can now look back at her journey with perspective and clarity.
“There were lots of ups and downs. I was very good when I was very young and then I was struggling a little bit at 18, 19, but I feel like at 22 I’ve been through everything,” she explains.
“I’ve been through the highs and through the lows and now I’ve matured a lot in the last couple of years and finally in the last two years I have some consistency throughout the year and this is really important to me because before when I used to play finals, I would lose first round the next couple of tournaments.
“I still expect a lot from myself, I still put pressure on myself, like today I thought it was a really good opportunity to make the third round [of the China Open] and that made me really nervous and I really wanted to win, so that’s something I still need to learn how to deal with a little bit better but overall I’m really happy with how consistent I am.”
For Vekic, there were many lessons learned during her search for consistency – one of which is the patience and understanding that everything comes in its own time.
“I think it comes with age as well,” she adds. “You see a lot of young girls that are playing really well but they cannot keep it. Even if they can keep it for a few tournaments, they cannot keep it for the full year. And I think that’s what they need to remember. Because it’s very easy to get down on yourself and to be hard but it’s a journey and if you have the level you will eventually reach the top and achieve your goals and if you don’t, you need to take it easy a little bit.”
One person who has helped Vekic stay positive this season, and not get down on herself too much, is her coach Torben Beltz, who joined her team at the end of 2017, after parting ways with Angelique Kerber.
“I really enjoy working with Torben. We’ve been working together since the offseason last year and we’ve been working really hard. He’s a really positive guy and he has a lot of experience and he’s definitely helped me a lot. Improved my game and gave me some insurance that if you do the right thing then the hard work will pay off and we’ve been working really hard and it’s definitely paying off and I’m really, really happy to be working with him,” says Vekic.
The younger generation has been making headway on the women’s tour recently, and there are three players – Naomi Osaka, Daria Kasatkina and Aryna Sabalenka – aged 21-and-under ranked in the top-15. Vekic doesn’t feel like the younger crew is ready to take over just yet though.
“Yes there are a lot [of 21-and-under players] in the top-20. There are a few of them winning, like Osaka and [Jelena] Ostapenko last year winning the Slams but you still don’t see it throughout the whole year,” says Vekic.
“So for sure there are special moments like that, but can they have the consistency to be top-10, top-five the whole year? I’m not sure yet. But everyone can beat everyone at the moment and I think that’s what’s so good about women’s tennis right now, you don’t know who is going to win the tournament at the end whereas in men’s tennis it’s a little bit different.”
Vekic will begin her 2019 season at the Brisbane International in Australia taking place from December 30 to January 6.
Last year, Abu Dhabi got to witness female professional tennis players compete for the first time when Serena Williams took on Jelena Ostapenko in an exhibition match at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
It was a historic moment that resonated with countless young girls in the UAE and this year, Venus Williams will take over the baton from her younger sister Serena and take part in the 11th edition of the Abu Dhabi showpiece next month.
A seven-time Grand Slam champion, former world No. 1, four-time Olympic gold medallist, and 49-time title winner on tour, the 38-year-old Venus continues to defy the odds and was ranked inside the top-10 as recently as last July.
She will face a yet-to-be-announced opponent in the UAE capital at Zayed Sports City and is excited to be making her MWTC debut.
“It’s great. The tournament bringing tennis in general to Abu Dhabi is fantastic, both men’s and women’s. It’s great to see women coming there too. It just represents everything that’s happening in tennis,” Venus told Sport360.
The American world No. 38 has never been to Abu Dhabi but has enjoyed lots of success in the UAE having won the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships three times.
“When I first went to Dubai it was a long time ago. It was an amazing place and it became even more amazing. At the time some people had never heard of Dubai but now everyone wants to go, it’s the same for lots of places in the Middle East. It’s definitely a destination and every time I get to go I’m very excited about it,” says Venus.
Her career has spanned more than two decades and many wonder how she continues to find motivation to put in the hard yards and compete on the gruelling tennis circuit. For Venus, the premise is very simple.
“I think the most gratifying part is doing the work and seeing the results. I think for everyone, in every aspect of life, it’s great to have that,” she explains.
Perhaps one of the secrets to her longevity is that she never just stuck to tennis. Venus studied business, design and architecture and is a successful entrepreneur. She founded her activewear lifestyle brand EleVen several years ago and is involved in every aspect of its operation. According to Inc.com, she sometimes even packages the products herself, and when she does, there’s a card accompanying it that says ‘Packaged by Venus’.
So how does one balance a successful tennis career with running a business?
“Well that’s not for everyone. Not everyone is going to be able to play professional tennis and run a business too. I think that’s definitely an exception. I would just say that anything you put your mind to, you can do,” says Venus.
In her case, the multi-tasking actually worked to her advantage.
“I would say if you want to get into entrepreneurship, it doesn’t mean you have to quit everything. You can still keep your job and learn about what you want to do and even start it at that time so that way you have a balance of risk. Being an entrepreneur is about managing risk and being able to experiment in a way that is sustainable. So the new definition of entrepreneur is completely different than what it used to be,” Venus said earlier this year in Madrid.
Many professional athletes believe that managing their own careers has helped them when they’ve made the crossover into business. For Venus, she says her life as an entrepreneur has also helped her tennis.
“Yes it helped me appreciate it [my tennis] because it doesn’t matter what business you start, you start at the bottom and at tennis at least I’m at the top and I can hopefully stay here. In entrepreneurship, it’s a lot of work and I’ve done a lot of my work already like 30 years ago as a child so any case, I love everything that I’ve attempted, that’s why I do it,” says Venus.
The Mubadala World Tennis Championship takes place from December 27 – 29, featuring a men’s six-player field headlined by Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, and a singles exhibition women’s match between Venus and an undisclosed opponent.
With just under a month to go until the start of Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC), organisers FLASH Entertainment have revealed a thrilling draw for the tournament.
Fans attending the event at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi between 27th – 29th December are set for three days of high-intensity tennis between some of the world’s top players.
The first of two matches on day one will be between defending champion and 2018 Wimbledon finalist Kevin Anderson and Australian Open semi-finalist Hyeon Chung.
The young South Korean will be out to make his mark and overcome the imposing South African, who has beaten him in both of their previous encounters.
This will be Anderson’s third appearance in the UAE capital, while Chung will be making his debut after a successful year which saw him win 29 out of 47 matches. The winner of this contest will take on world No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals on day two.
The day’s second match will see world No. 8 Dominic Thiem take on Karen Khachanov of Russia for a place in the last-four against world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
Khachanov, 22, has just enjoyed the best season of his young career, registering 46 wins, whilst Thiem will be bidding to improve on his performance this year after reaching his first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros.
World No. 1 and 14-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic and 17-time major winner Nadal both received byes until the semi-finals, where they will face off against the winners from day one.
With four of the six male players featuring in the top-10, this year’s line-up is amongst the best ever.
Tickets for the 11th Edition of the MWTC are priced from Dh100 and can be purchased from www.ticketmaster.ae and all Virgin megastores across the UAE.
Kids aged between 2 to 12 years can enter for free on day one of the Championship, along with the purchase of one adult ticket.