Advertising

WIMBLEDON—Donna Vekic was the veteran who’d previously played in 42 Grand Slam tournaments. Lulu Sun was the qualifier, in the main draw of a major for only the second time. Theoretically, Vekic should have been the one swinging freely and feeling more comfortable. But through the first set and well into the second, the opposite was the case.

At last, though, everything from the weight of Vekic’s ball to her overall fitness level proved decisive. In two hours and six minutes, Vekic beat Sun, 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 to reach her first Grand Slam semifinal.

“It was a tough match,” said Sun. “Donna played really well … Towards the end of the second and third [sets], I had troubles physically with some cramps. That's maybe the only regret I have is I couldn't keep up physically, but she played better today and she deserved the win.”

“I knew she was going to come out swinging,” said Vekic, who following the match admitted that lefthanded opponents like Sun have always posed challenges for her, particularly on the return of serve. “I could not find the depth in my shots. I wasn’t executing my shots as well as I wanted to. That’s why I was, I don't know, a little bit more stressed and tense.

“But at the end I managed to find my game.”

Advertising

The first set crackled with baseline power from both players. Repeatedly, though, Vekic was the one unable to take advantage of the opportunities she had created. With Sun serving at 1-2, Vekic held three break points in a ten-deuce game. But after 26 points, Sun held with a 111 MPH ace.

Six games later, Sun served at 4-5, love-30, escaped once again, broke Vekic, and went on to close out the opening set with an untouchable backhand drop shot.

Sun’s high-quality tennis continued through the first half of the second set. But then, as the set advanced, Sun’s weariness surfaced in the form of several ill-informed drop shots and more groundstroke errors. Vekic, seemingly rattled as the first set slipped away, found new forms of focus, calm, and creativity. Holding a set point at 4-5, 30-40, it was Vekic’s turn to win the set with a drop shot.

The third was all Vekic—almost literally. She won the first 12 points of the third set and swiftly went ahead 5-0, dropping just eight points. While the first set had lasted an hour, the next two only took 66 minutes.

Rafa returns in Bastad!

Rafa returns in Bastad!

Nadal will play doubles with Ruud before taking the court to face Leo Borg.

Advertising

Engaging backstories were also a key plot line in this match. Sun’s journey from outside the top 100 to the quarterfinals has been the Cinderella story of this year’s Wimbledon. One lesser-told element has been Sun’s tennis education. In 2019, at a time when Sun was ranked outside the Top 400 and well before she considered attending the University of Texas in Austin, she worked extensively with tactical guru Craig O’Shannessy. I spoke this morning with O’Shannessy on the grounds of the All England Club as he told me what an excellent student she was.

O’Shannessy estimates that he either reviewed or prepared Sun to play approximately 50 matches. As fate had it, O’Shannessy is based in Austin, so was also able to expand his work with Sun to the court while she attended college and also gained from the wisdom of her team’s coach, Howard Joffe.

“She was fantastic,” said O’Shannessy. “She’s fearless.”

Though the two no longer work together, O’Shannessy was courtside for today’s match, sitting near Sun’s coach, former pro Vladimir Platenik.

Sun will be ranked inside the Top 60 next week, cracking the Top 100 for the first time.

Sun will be ranked inside the Top 60 next week, cracking the Top 100 for the first time.

Advertising

Sun will be ranked inside the Top 60 next week, cracking the Top 100 for the first time. As Sun has taken steps to say hello to big-time pro tennis, less than two months ago, Vekic felt like saying goodbye.

“It was the Thursday before Roland Garros this year that we had scheduled practice,” said Vekic. “I arrived to the club. I told [my coach] Nick, ‘Listen, I want to pull out of French Open. I want to go home. I want to take a longer break.’

“I didn’t have any energy, any motivation to keep practicing, keep pushing because I felt like the last couple months I've given everything for tennis, and I wasn’t getting the results that I kind of expected.”

Opting instead to play in Paris, Vekic in the third round suffered an extremely frustrating defeat, losing to qualifier Olga Danilovic 0-6, 7-5, 7-6 (8). But in the wake of that moment, Vekic soldiered on.

"It's not easy at times," said Vekic. "I had to really dig deep inside and push myself.”

"It's not easy at times," said Vekic. "I had to really dig deep inside and push myself.”

Advertising

Prior to Wimbledon, she played in three grass events, in the last one reaching the finals. Asked to describe her story through this period, Vekic said, “I guess to never give up. It's not easy at times. Yeah, I had to really dig deep inside and push myself.”

A Grand Slam semifinal has been a long time coming for Vekic. She first began competing at majors as a teenager, fought through several potentially career-ending injuries, and is now playing the best tennis of her life. Though still only 28 years old, Vekic might well understand a question once asked by baseball great Satchel Paige: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?

At tennis’ most fabled venue, an old soul has found youth.