Donna Vekic made an impressive run to the final of the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy in 2019 – can she begin to recoup those points as she faces qualifier Kristie Ahn on Tuesday?
Vekic vs Ahn is live from St Petersburg on Tuesday 11 February at 4pm local/1pm GMT
Vekic was ranked world no. 30 last February when she beat Timea Bacsinszky, Veronika Kudermetova, the defending champion Petra Kvitova and Vera Zvonareva to reach the final of the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy. The Croatian lost 6-7(2), 4-6 to Kiki Bertens in the final, but it was still a very good run – especially a 4 and 1 victory over Kvitova, one of the WTA Tour’s finest players on indoor hard courts, even if Kvitova was coming off a run to the Australian Open final.
Former teenage phenomenon Vekic, who has worked hard over the past few seasons to improve under the guidance of Torben Beltz, went on to record a career-best season in 2019. She reached a second WTA Tour final in Nottingham and reached semifinals in Brisbane, Acapulco and San Jose (two of them, like St Petersburg, Premier-level events). At Grand Slam level, Vekic reached the last 16 of the French Open before making her first quarterfinal at the US Open.
Vekic finished 2019 just inside the top 20 for the first time as a consequence of all these achievements, and comes into St Petersburg on the back of a solid enough January, having bounced back from a first-round defeat to Yulia Putintseva in Brisbane by making the quarterfinals of the Adelaide International before losing to Dayana Yastremska. Handed the tough draw of facing Maria Sharapova in the first round of the Australian Open, Vekic rose to the occasion, ousting the beleaguered former champion 6-4, 6-3 before losing in the third round to Iga Swiatek (like Yastremska, a fast-rising younger player).
It’s no surprise that the big-serving Vekic, who favours a first-strike model of tennis, should do well on indoor hard courts. She comes into St Petersburg looking to regain her place inside the top 20, having dropped to world no. 23, and could be set for a quarterfinal clash against Kvitova, a rematch of last year’s, if she can make it through the first two rounds.
First up for Vekic in St Petersburg is qualifier Kristie Ahn, who lost to the Croatian in their only previous encounter.
Ahn, a former college player, turned pro in 2015 and was close to breaking into the top 100 in late 2017-early 2018 before sliding back down the rankings. In 2019, Ahn’s ranking dipped as low as world no. 226 but the American swiftly began to turn things around, climbing doggedly up the rankings throughout the season as she divided her time between ITF tournaments – she won the $25k in Rancho Sante Fe and made $60k semifinals in Fukuoka and Berkeley – and the WTA Tour. Ahn successfully qualified for Wimbledon and did the same thing at the Premier-level Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose, where she beat Elise Mertens and Ajla Tomljanovic to make the quarterfinals before falling to Vekic.
It got her a US Open wildcard, and Ahn – 11 years after she made her debut at her home major – took full advantage, beating two former Grand Slam champions in the form of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Ostapenko as she made a career-reviving run to the last 16.
Ahn’s run was stopped by Mertens 6-1, 6-1, but it got her into the top 100 for the first time, and the American went on to make the quarterfinals in Seoul to end her season with a career-high ranking of world no. 87.
Ahn went 0-3 to start 2020 with defeats to Caty McNally and Sara Sorribes Tormo in qualifying for Auckland and Hobart respectively before going down 1-6, 3-6 to Caroline Wozniacki in the first round of the Australian Open. But she has snapped that losing streak with wins over Valeriya Strakhova and Tereza Martincova in straight sets to qualify for the main draw in St Petersburg.
Vekic won the only previous meeting between the two 7-5, 6-0 in San Jose last August, and the conditions are better for her big game; if she serves well, there’s not going to be too much Ahn can do. But Ahn is well attuned to the conditions after coming through qualifying and should be able to keep the scoreline reasonably close.