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Exclusive, Vekic: “For the first time in my life, I truly believe that I can win a Grand Slam title”

For Tennis Majors, Donna Vekic, qualified for the 4th round of the Australian Open, talked about her goals, her team and also about her frienship with Belinda Bencic.

Donna Vekic, Chicago 2021 Donna Vekic, Chicago 2021 – © Zuma / Panoramic

Following the Australian Open 2021, Donna Vekic had surgery on her right knee. Rehabilitation lasted a few months and she came back in time for Roland Garros the same year, but it took her way longer than that to get back to her best level.

In the meantime, the 19th player in the world has fallen out of the top 100, so at the French Open last year she had to play qualifiers at a Slam for the first time since US Open 2016.

Slowly, but surely, Vekic kept improving until she played in the finals in San Diego last October, having beaten Maria Sakkari, Karolina Pliskova, Aryna Sabalenka and Danielle Collins along the way, only to lose to Iga Swiatek in three sets in the finals.

At the United Cup at the start of 2023, Vekic won three matches, including one over Alize Cornet, and so far at the Australian Open she has beaten Oksana Selekhmeteva, Liudmila Samsonova and Nuria Parrizas-Diaz. 

Speaking to Tennis Majors ahead of her fourth round match with 17-year old Linda Fruhvirtova, Vekic spoke about her matches so far, her team, separation with physiotherapist Zlatko Novkovic, friendship with Belinda Bencic, why she doesn’t like to dream about tennis… 

Donna Vekic reacts during her third round match against Spain’s Nuria Parrizas-Diaz, Australian Open 2023 (©AI/Reuters/Panoramic)

It is your fourth time in the second week of a Slam. What clicked at this year’s Australian Open?

I feel that everything already clicked towards the end of last year. I have played really well since the US Open – I did lose in the first round, but I played against Kudermetova. In Thailand and in San Diego I improved a lot, and many wins in San Diego gave me a lot of confidence: first of all, they showed me that I can play at the top level again. Following the surgery, it took me a year and a half to reach that level and I am glad I was able to reproduce it at the start of 2023. 

How would you define the feeling of being confident, what exactly do you experience when you have confidence?

That is a very good question! First and foremost, it is belief in my body – I need to know that I can play for five hours if that is what it takes, and that I won’t lose because I was not physically prepared. Secondly, knowing that I can be aggressive on important points, the belief that I will hit the mark on those occasions. Actually, how you play the key points makes the biggest difference in tennis. 

Physiotherapist Zlatko Novković (used to work with Ana Ivanović as well) was a long-time member of your team, but he is no longer with you…

Zlatko is like a brother to me. Just this morning (Saturday) I was thinking… The last time I played at the Margaret Court Arena – which was two years ago when I had beaten Kanepi – my knee hurt so badly that Zlatko literally carried me from the court, since I was not able to walk. We worked together for five years, so he had been with me through highs and through lows. Without him I would not be here playing, let alone winning. 

How does your team look now?

My main coach is Nikola Horvat (who used to work with Timea Babos). We started our collaboration last year in Cincinnati, and then we added Pam Shriver (former world number 3) – we clicked instantly in San Diego, she is a coach, consultant, mentor, whatever you want to call it. I am particularly happy that Nico and she get along really well. Also, there are my physio Yannick Guillaumet and a fitness coach based in Monaco, with whom I have been working for several years now. 

We have a really nice atmosphere within the team

Donna Vekic

What makes Horvat and Shriver such a good team?

The key is communication between them, and then how they present their opinion to me, they are very well synchronized. The most important thing for me personally, though, is that we have a really nice atmosphere within the team, since they are my friends in the first place. 

You mentioned friendship. On social media, it is evident that you have a great relationship with Belinda Bencic. People went crazy in the positive sense over that video you made about the difference between post-match handshakes on the WTA and ATP Tour. How did that occur to you?

How did it occur to us (laughing)? To be honest, I do not even remember, but it was spontaneous. We are close friends. I never look at the draws, all I know is that we are in the same half. Every time after the match, while I am riding a bike, my coach tells me the next opponent, and I just pray that it is not here. I hope that we cannot meet until the semifinals, if we keep winning. You know what, I am really happy about having several friends on the Tour, which is rare. 

There is a grain of truth in every joke. What is the difference between relations on the WTA and the ATP Tour?

Not much. I think it is a myth that female tennis players are all enemies, and men are all friends. On the ATP tour too there is… I would not say hostility, but rivalries for sure. Personally, I do not have an issue with anybody on the WTA tour. OK, maybe with a couple of them, but we won’t go into that now (laughing). 

Does a dominant figure like Iga Swiatek mean a lot to women’s tennis and its popularity?

Well, we had Barty before Swiatek… To be honest, I cannot be the judge whether that is important or not, because I love tennis very much. Every time we get back from the club, we turn on the TV and watch some more tennis. I feel that at the moment there are so many interesting and colorful players in the top 20 both on the WTA and the ATP tour. Just yesterday I made a remark about how much fun this Australian Open is. 

I am enjoying it more and more with each year

Donna Vekic

You are only 26, yet you have been a professional since 2012. How do you keep your fire going when it comes to everything that constitutes the life of a tennis player?

Actually, I am enjoying it more and more with each year. Perhaps because of the difficulties I have had with injuries, now I can appreciate even more when I get the opportunity to play, particularly in the biggest stadiums of the biggest tournaments. It is even better when I win, of course. I have got a clear goal in my head, tennis fulfills me and I have dedicated myself completely to achieving that goal.

What is the goal?

Every player’s goal is to win a Grand Slam title, but the difference now is that I truly believe that I can do it, for the first time in my life.

Which question you get in press conferences you find boring, and which question you were never asked, and you wish it did?

I can understand (why you ask it), but it is always the same – how do you feel about the match etc. For instance, nobody has ever asked me how I slept last night. By the way, I slept horribly last night, and getting good sleep is perhaps the most important thing. It is a simple question nobody has ever asked me.

While we are at it, do you ever dream about tennis?

Oh, often! Most of the time I dream that I play badly, I cannot put a ball in court, my serve is awful… Then I think to myself: “Please, God, I just want to wake up”. It is better when I do not dream about tennis, those dreams are traumatic (laughing). 

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