Older and wiser, 20-year-old Vekic on the rise again

Pic: Reuters

These days Donna Vekic is best known as the girlfriend of three-times grand slam champion Stan Wawrinka but it is easy to forget that five years ago she was tipped as the next big thing.

Croatian Vekic, who turns 21 later this month, reached the final of her first WTA Tour event in Tashkent in 2012 - the youngest player to do so for six years.

The following year, still aged 16, she was runner-up at the Wimbledon warm-up event in Birmingham, prompting former American great Chris Evert to predict a top-10 career.

She has never got close.

There was one title in Kuala Lumpur in 2014 when she reached a career high 63 but she finished outside the top 100 for the past two years. Last year she fell in the first round of the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon and failed to qualify for the U.S. Open.

Google her name and the results throw up endless stories about an unsavoury incident in 2015 when Australian Nick Kyrgios made derogatory sexual remarks about her during a match against Swiss Wawrinka in Montreal, for which he was subsequently fined.

There are signs, however, that Monte Carlo-based Vekic, now "older and wiser", might start making headlines again for the tennis ability that has been hibernating for a while.

On Friday at the Nottingham Open she completed a third consecutive straight sets win, this time against Greek Maria Sakkari to move to within a victory of her fifth career final.

Not quite in the same league as 32-year-old Wawrinka who has won two of his three grand slams since being romantically involved with Vekic, but she is still aiming high.

"I hope I won't be as old as he was when I win my first grand slam!" she told Reuters at the Nottingham tennis centre.

"It's been difficult. I've had some ups and downs in my career but I'm still only 20.

"You know I can't say it's been easy but I feel like I've been through everything, but now I'm stronger mentally and have improved a lot of things in my game.

"There are still things to work on but I know what it takes to be there and hopefully I can achieve that and keep this momentum going."

Vekic, coached by Nick Horvat and whose agent Lawrence Frankopan also looks after Wawrinka, said the hardest thing was watching other young players zoom past her.

"I was playing those finals when I was 16 and 17 and it was more me who was putting pressure on myself, thinking OK I have to win every tournament now," she said.

"Then all the other young girls came up and like Belinda (Bencic) she was in the top 10 and I was thinking what am I doing wrong? But I wasn't really doing anything wrong.

"It just takes time and I had fall to get back up. This will make me stronger. I went high then low. It was difficult for me because I was expecting the opposite.

"But I'm happy that I am coming back."

Vekic said she takes heart from the likes of Jelena Ostapenko who won the French Open last week, aged 20.

That was incredible and it showed everyone can do it and that women's tennis is so open," she said.

"To win a slam at any age is amazing, 20 or 30. I'll take either."