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Once Considering Retirement, Recharged Vekic has Major Dreams

By Richard Pagliaro | Sunday, January 22, 2023

Gnawing knee pain and festering frustration plagued Donna Vekic so severely, she considered pulling the plug on her career twice last season.

Today, a recharged Vekic continued her electrifying start to the new season.

Sabalenka: Someone Help Me Fix This F--king Serve!

Contesting her 11th Australian Open, Vekic fought off 17-year-old Czech phenom Linda Fruhvirtova 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 to reach her first Melbourne quarterfinal.

On match point, Vekic banged a serve winner out wide, dropped her Yonex racquet and exhaled deeply as if absorbing a moment that once seemed so far away.

As recently as last summer, Vekic contemplated calling it quits feeling her body was betraying her.

After undergoing knee surgery in 2021, Vekic suffered a series of setbacks including tearing plantar fascia and recurring knee pain last spring.

Things got so bad, Vekic said she considered retirement twice.

"I said twice I'm going to quit tennis," Vekic said. "Of course, you have doubts especially because I wasn't really fit, I was so far from moving the way I was before. I didn't trust my knee. I didn't trust my abilities. Then my fitness was improving, but it wasn't coming together on the match court. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, as well. One thing, to play well in matches, having the expectations of my level what was before surgery."

After her 2022 US Open first-round exit, Vekic issued a self-imposed career deadline. 

"I remember after US Open last year when I lost to Kudermetova first round, I played well. In the end I lost. I was like, I give myself until Wimbledon next year to see if I can reach at least my same level than before," Vekic said. "If not, it was too tough for me mentally to be on this average level, I would say, for me because I know what I was capable of before."

Playing through qualifying in San Diego last October, Vekic knocked off Maria Sakkari, Karolina Pliskova, Aryna Sabalenka and Danielle Collins to reach the San Diego final where she pushed world No. 1 Iga Swiatek to three sets. That superb San Diego performance strengthened self-belief in Vekic. 

Now, she may well be capable of even more. This inspired run has vaulted Vekic back into the Top 50 at No. 34 in the live rankings and reignited her major dreams.

"For the first time in my life, I truly believe that I can win a Grand Slam title," Vekic told Tennis Majors.

Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Pam Shriver has joined Vekic's team and was in her box for today's victory.

While superb serve-and-volleyer Shriver can certainly help strengthen Vekic's transition and net play, the Croatian says she values Shriver's tactical acumen and candor as well.

"It started in San Diego very randomly. We spent a lot of time there together," Vekic said of Shriver. "I went to L.A. after, so we also saw each other there.

"I was like, Hey, Pam, we get along so well, do you want to join Team DV for next year? She said yes, which is, one, a huge honor for me to have such a champion wanting to work with me.

"Two, I really believe that she can bring a lot to my game. Everyone says she's only bringing volleys for me, and I'm going to improve my volleys, that's for sure. Also, a lot about serve and the rest of the game. That's for sure."

The partnership is paying immediate dividends.

The 26-year-old Vekic, who slipped out of the Top 100 at the start of last season, is off to a 7-0 start this season and has won 16 of her last 19 matches.

Next, Vekic will play her first major quarterfinal since the 2019 US Open. Vekic has beaten quarterfinal opponent Aryna Sabalenka in five of six meetings, including in San Diego last October, and knows she needs to play top-level tennis to knock off the undefeated Sabalenka.

There's some added incentive too.

The No. 5-seeded Sabalenka knocked Belinda Bencic, Vekic's buddy, out of the fourth round today and the Croatian will try to avenge her friend in the quarterfinals.

"I've read, of course, on Twitter that she's playing maybe the best tennis on the women's side this Australian Open. I have a great head-to-head with her," Vekic said of Sabalenka. "All of our matches have been really tough, so I'm sure next one will be, as well.

"I'm just going to take it one match at a time, just really focus on that match. First not think that it's quarterfinals because it's a big match for us both. I'm sure she'll be feeling it as well. I will try to take revenge for Belinda."