LONDON, June 21 (Reuters) - When a 16-year-old like Croatia’s Donna Vekic bursts on to the big stage by reaching tournament finals the words “next big thing” are never far behind.
The pitfalls of surviving the assault course of professional women’s tennis have swallowed up many an emerging talent, yet when a former great like Chris Evert starts talking up the London-coached Croatian it is worth listening.
“She has tremendous mental ability and is tremendously confident and poised for someone of just 16,” 18-times grand slam champion Evert said this week.
“I‘m not saying top 10 just yet but top 20 definitely in the near future.”
It is a bold prediction but Vekic, coached by Tim Henman’s former mentor David Felgate, is already turning heads.
Last September, in her main draw debut on the WTA Tour, she reached the final in Tashkent and last week in Birmingham, in her first grasscourt tournament on the Tour, she blazed to the final where she lost a tight match to veteran Daniela Hantuchova.
Vekic could be excused a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Instead, she sounded mildly disappointed at not already having a first career title under her belt.
“Things have happened really quickly and I‘m pleased about that considering I‘m just 16 but I wanted to win desperately,” she told Reuters. “Sometimes you are not quite ready.”
“But when I get to my third final I want to win it.”
Felgate made it clear she was not satisfied merely getting to finals. “Not to put too fine a point on it she was upset and pissed off,” he told Reuters. “She knows she had a chance.”
“She wasn’t happy but I like that attitude.”
Osijek-based Vekic, who speaks English like a native, calls London her second home and has the looks to attract big sponsors, is already drawing parallels with a young Maria Sharapova - a comparison Felgate is quick to play down, especially as the Russian won Wimbledon at 17.
“All you can ask for as a coach is that you want to work with someone who is determined to improve,” he said.
“I don’t know how good she’s going to be, she’s obviously doing very well at the moment. She is not scared to be pushed and has a good head and a good heart. If you combine that with the weapons she has that’s why we have what we have today.”
Preparing for her first senior Wimbledon, having reached the junior quarter-finals, world No.64 Vekic will arrive in the enviable position of having nothing to lose - a luxury that will become rarer the higher she climbs up the rankings.
“I‘m very excited, it will be my first senior Wimbledon. I played juniors there but that’s not quite the same thing,” said Vekic, who could face former world number one Caroline Wozniacki if she survives her first round match against Petra Cetkovska.
“Growing up, Wimbledon was my favourite slam and I like grass so maybe I can win it one day,” she added.
Having Felgate on board, an experienced coach who helped Henman reach four Wimbledon semi-finals, helps. However, she quickly batted away any suggestion that her links to London could one day see her change national allegiance.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in London but definitely not,” Vekic said when asked the question. “Besides all the British players have great slices and I don’t have one yet so I don’t think that would work out.”
She possesses other weapons though, namely a crunching forehand and a first serve that packs a punch. Felgate said she even practises serve and volley on occasion.
“She naturally likes to come forward,” he said. “It’s a case of adding a few more strings to your bow.”
Evert, whose classic career-long rivalry with Martina Navratilova Vekic said she loved watching on DVD, warned against over-hyping the Croatian teenager.
“I like her and I have talked to her about her game,” Evert said. “She is a tall girl, powerful, good groundstrokes but she’s only 16 and still has to physically develop. She is still growing into her body.”
Living the dream she may be but Vekic still has her schoolwork to consider, and then there is the packing.
“I love going to all the good restaurants but I‘m not keen on travelling and packing the suitcases. I ask my mum to do it sometimes but she just rolls her eyes because she hates it too.” (Editing by Josh Reich)