Martina Hingis was 16 years old when she won her first Grand Slam title in Melbourne and became world no. 1. At 17, Maria Sharapova had won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. In recent times, first time champions in womens tennis don´t come that young anymore. Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka were in their early 20s when they won their first Grand Slam titles recently while Li Na and Francesca Schiavone were close to 30 when they won theirs.
With the age-eligibility rules put into place to protect teenagers from burning out and the increased physicality of the sport, the days of teenaged phenoms in tennis are a thing of the past. Yet every once in a while a teenager comes along and makes us sit up and take notice. Some of them go on to achieve great things in the sport.. others leave behind a trail of unmet expectations and broken dreams.
Croatia´s Donna Vekic is the latest young gun to make waves on the WTA circuit. Vekic turned 16 only in June this year and until this week, she had never played the main draw of a WTA event, losing in quaifying on two previous occasions. But with her performance this week at the WTA Tashkent Open, Vekic has turned herself from talented junior to potential winner. After going through the qualifying event, Vekic has scored wins over three top 100 players in successive matches - .world no. 54 Magdalena Rybarikova, world No.91 Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino and world no. 64 Bojana Jovanovski. She followed that with a win over 2011 finalist Eva Birnerova in three sets to reach the finals of her debut WTA event before finally losing to Romania´s Irina-Camelia Begu in the championship match. Vekic became the youngest player since 2007 to reach a WTA final in the process.
While Vekic has been a talented junior, she never did exceptionally well at the junior Grand Slams - failing to make the semi finals of any of the four majors in the last couple of years. But the Croatian has been finding success on the ITF circuit on a regular basis. In 2011, Vekic competed in 7 ITF events, mostly $10Ks, reaching 5 finals and winning 1 of those to finish with a 23-6 record. Mighty impressive for a 15 year old. "I stopped playing juniors after I lost in the junior quarterfinals at Wimbledon this year - I decided my junior tennis was over and wanted to concentrate on the senior circuit. It´s a totally different ball game - I felt more adjusted to the senior level. I feel comfortable." Vekic commented in an interview to the WTA.
Before this week in Tashkent, Vekic had compiled a 29-8 record in 2012, highlighted by 2 titles and 3 runner-up finishes at the $25Ks. At the US Open last month, Vekic won 2 matches in qualifying before falling to the 25th seed Elina Gallovits in 3 sets in the final round. Clearly, Vekic is playing beyond her years. "I don´t think like a 16-year-old. In tennis one has to grow fast, and I think I have matured fast. I love tennis and want to be playing. I have to get stronger physically and mentally and develop my game."
Vekic´s run this week will move her around the 110 mark in the world rankings. The youngest player in the top 100 currently is 18 year old Laura Robson, of Britain. If she is able to sustain her momentum, she could gain direct entry into the Australian Open in January. But the youngster herself is not too worried about her ranking at the moment. "My aim is to play every match better than the last one. I don´t care if I lose too, because I learn from the matches I lose. I´ve worked really hard this year and I believe hard work pays off. I try not to think about rankings too much. If you think about those things too much you may lose focus. All I want is to play well and do well."
The hard work is beginning to pay off and Vekic has shown the tennis word this week that she is ready to compete with the pros. Even the legendary Chris Evert calls her "an exceptional talent - remember the name!"