WATCH: Despite ending 2021 with a third title, Vekic was only at the beginning of another six-month injury sojourn with her left foot and right knee.

WASHINGTON—Donna Vekic gave a tired smile as she landed on one of the couches outside the Citi Open player lounge. It was only August 1st, but it’s already been a long year for a 26-year-old Croat who was only recently feeling back to herself on the tennis court.

Mostly, anyway.

“I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer,” she said following a dominant 6-4, 6-1 win over No. 7 seed Mayar Sherif. “Every week, I’m fitter, and we did a good training bloc after Wimbledon, so I definitely feel fitter than before.”

The grass swing is where Vekic typically aims to shine brightest, having reached three finals on the surface in addition to a fourth-round Wimbledon appearance in 2018. But as has largely been the case for the former No. 19 since her 2019 peak, injuries have kept her from capitalizing on what has become a wide-open WTA field.

“It’s very frustrating!” she laughs before I even can finish asking the question. “It’s definitely very frustrating, but I’m trying to only focus on myself, and on improving each day, rather than thinking how other people are playing.”

Phone calls and Zoom chats aside, it has been an entire pandemic since the two of us last kiki’d in person, and even longer since we sat on another couch during the 2019 WTA Elite Trophy, when she told me and an enrapt audience of staffers and comms managers a wild story of how she taught a Wuhan hotel restaurant to bake her a Nutella pizza.


“We were in the Italian restaurant at the hotel, and they had pizza,” she explained weeks later in Zhuhai. “At the beginning, I asked, because I wanted to prepare them, ‘Do you have Nutella?’ The waiter said they did, so I asked if they could make Nutella Pizza. He asks the chef and comes back to say, ‘I’m sorry; it’s not possible because we have only one chef.’ I asked, ‘But you have Nutella?’ He didn’t know what it was, so I had to Google it because I was like, ‘You have it at breakfast.’ He went downstairs to the breakfast restaurant and brought a whole new jar of Nutella.

“I told them to make the pizza bread and put Nutella on top. He wasn’t sure what I meant and he asked, ‘Pizza bread with garlic?’ I said no, just plain pizza bread and then put this Nutella on top. We had our dinner as they were making the pizza. All of the waiters and chefs came over to look at it when it arrived. They started putting powdered sugar on it and I thought it was parmesan cheese, so I was like, ‘NOOOO!’ All of them jumped back because they were shocked. It was a fight but, my god, it was good.”

Vekic was only a month removed from her career pinnacle at the 2019 US Open, when she rallied from match point down to defeat Julia Goerges and reach her first major quarterfinal. The result helped her make a long-awaited Top 20 debut and assured her of a berth in Zhuhai, the second-tier WTA Finals but a great leap forward from a previous season that had begun outside the Top 50.

“It’s the first time in a while that I actually achieved my pre-season goals,” she remarked at the time. “I used to set them pretty high and maybe they weren’t very realistic, but I felt like this one was at the end of last year when we set it. It was tough, and I wanted to play consistently throughout the whole year.”


Goals have been understandably harder to set in the years since: tour life was only just coming back online when a right knee injury and subsequent surgery sidelined her for much of 2021. Though she ended that year with a third career title in Courmayeurand found time to launch a successful line of candles—Vekic’s unconscious favoring of her left leg caused a plantar fascia tear in that foot, and after a first-round exit from the 2022 Australian Open led her to conclude that her initial knee injury still hadn’t quite healed.

“We’re still trying to get back to my level,” she said on Monday. “My confidence in the right leg is improving, but it’s not there yet. I don’t know if I’m ever going to move as well as I did before my surgery, but it’s definitely something we’re working on a lot.”

The work in Monte Carlo with physio Yannick Guillaumet and longtime fitness trainer Zlatko Novkovic was evident against Sherif, who was playing her first match since withdrawing from Roland Garros. Blasting her inimitable forehand from the back of the court, Vekic won seven straight games at one stretch to dismiss her higher-ranked opposition in under 90 minutes.

“I wanted to improve my movement so I could be more explosive on court. I’m really happy with the work we did in the couple weeks. Honestly, it felt like my first real training bloc since the [2021] surgery.”


We’re still trying to get back to my level. My confidence in the right leg is improving, but it’s not there yet. I don’t know if I’m ever going to move as well as I did before my surgery, but it’s definitely something we’re working on a lot. Donna Vekic

The win was her first on hard courts since last fall, and there’s something apropos about it coming at the Citi Open, a tournament that encapsulates Vekic’s career arc of triumph and adversity.

“Losing here in the 2018 finals was one of my most disappointing moments ever. I had match points against Svetlana Kuznetsova. I remember I was just walking around for a couple of days after the match like, you know when you’re in that place where you could be doing something else and all the sudden tears come to your eyes? That was me!

“So, that’s why I’ve come back, to get happier memories and for that not to be my main takeaway from Washington.”

It’s that kind of motivation that lets Vekic shake off the jealousy she feels seeing friends enjoying their summer vacation—her annual off-season trip to the Maldives is already booked—and make one last push to salvage her 2022 season and see if victory is still as sweet as Nutella pizza.

“Everything went to shit, but what can I do?” she says with a shrug. “If I think about it, I’m only going to be annoyed. So, I’m actually in a good space right now, both mentally and physically, so I’m focusing on the positives as much as I can.”