Melbourne: Two years ago Donna Vekic hobbled out of the Australian Open on a heavily bandaged right leg, uncertain at the age of 24 whether she had a future in professional tennis.
The former world No 19 had only narrowly avoided a dreaded 6-0 ‘bagel’ to American Jennifer Brady in the fourth round.
Visibly in pain, she needed a lengthy injury timeout just to be able to finish the match — a straight-set defeat — and knee surgery followed after.
Firmly back on course
Now she’s back, fit, in-form, smiling and says she can lift the winner’s Daphne Akhurst Cup on Saturday.
“Why not here? If it doesn’t happen for me here, I really believe that in the next couple of years. Why not?” she replied when asked by reporters if she truly believes she can win a major.
That she is in a first Melbourne Park quarter-final against Aryna Sabalenka on Wednesday is a remarkable turnaround from two years ago.
The surgery preceded a long struggle back to her old fitness and form. Pain continued. The doubts crept in.
San Diego the catalyst
“I said twice I’m going to quit tennis,” the 64th-ranked Croatian admitted after her fourth-round win over Linda Fruhvirtova on Monday.
Her third WTA Tour title at Courmayeur in October 2021 helped dispel any thoughts of calling it a day.
But a stunning run to the final in San Diego a year later proved the catalyst for the belief truly returning.
Why not here?
Vekic beat top players Maria Sakkari, Karolina Pliskova, Sabalenka and Danielle Collins en route to the title match where she took No 1 Iga Swiatek to three sets.
“San Diego was a really important week for me, beating all those top players, ranking-wise,” she said.
“It was a huge confidence boost. Gave me a lot of belief. I think really honestly that week I saw that I can do it.
“If I can do it there, why not here?”
Her knee is still troublesome and needs careful management. “The whole of 2021 I was struggling, still had pain,” she said.
“After Australia last year I had to take another couple of months off again for the knee. It was just a battle.
“I hope that I finally found the solution, how to deal with it. It will be up and down for the rest of my career.”
She is still only 26, but admits at times her creaking joint makes her feel much older.
“It’s my 11th Australian Open. I’ve been around for a while. I don’t feel 26 when I wake up in the morning and take my first couple of steps,” she added.
Croatia’s former world No 4 Iva Majoli, courtside for the Fruhvirtova match, says Vekic can go all the way.
“She’s been looking very confident since she arrived in Australia,” Majoli told ausopen.com.
Vekic is unbeaten in seven matches in Australia this year, having won all three of her United Cup clashes, where Majoli was team captain.
“She had a good off-season, came to Australia very sharp and very focused and that is being shown in her matches,” said Majoli, who added the tournament could be the stepping stone to a breakthrough year at the Slams.
“I think it’s the first time she feels she can go all the way. She should feel confident.
“It’s a great start to the season for Donna, but I think it’s also going to be a great season.
“I really feel this could be her growing, stepping up to the top of the game.”