Donna Vekic’s run in the Azalea Group at the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai is over, after being dispatched by 19-year old Dayana Yastremska, 7-6(6) 6-2 in an hour and 35 minutes on Wednesday.
I just don't put pressure on myself, I realised that I didn't prepare so good, so I just accepted it and I played how I played. Dayana Yastremska
The Croat’s disappointment was flavoured by déjà vu, since she also lost an equally competitive first set in the tiebreak on Tuesday to top seed Kiki Bertens.
Both lost sets were followed by acquiescence in the second, amounting to an early departure.
On this day, Yastremska made her winning debut by saving 2 set points in the opener to squeeze through a superb contest of brutal hitting that ended the No 8 seed’s involvement in the tournament.
Having not expected to qualify for Zhuhai after losing to Kirsten Flipkens in the second round of Moscow last week, Yastremska had gone into off-season mode at home in Ukraine.
“I didn’t practice for 5 days and I completely relaxed,” she explained.
Despite her last-minute call-up, this turned out to pay off.
“I just don’t put pressure on myself,” said the 19-year-old. “I realised that I didn’t prepare so good, so I just accepted it and I played how I played.”
The Ukrainian’s first career Top 50 win had come over Vekic back in 2017 in the semi-finals of the St Petersburg ITF 100K event, albeit via retirement, but both are now ensconced in the Top 25 in the world after breakthrough seasons.
They put on a breathtaking display, striking 39 clean winners in their first completed match in which Vekic played an excellent first set, only to find herself edged out in a close tiebreak.
“I was able to play my game, but still to stay a little bit more during the point – you know, to be more patient instead of boom, boom, boom, boom,” she said, claiming she had been trying to dial back her aggression.
Only 3 break points came and went in the serve-dominated first set that saw 12 consecutive holds.
Yastremska’s phenomenal firepower was on song from the outset and winners flowed effortlessly from the 19-year-old’s racket, particularly from her forehand wing that drew frequent gasps, such was its raw pace and accuracy.
The youngest player in the tournament also impressed with her boldness on big points and ability to adapt.
With Vekic trying to direct as much traffic as possible to Yastremska’s slightly less venomous backhand side, the youngster responded by upping the pace with that stroke too, redirecting a number of winners as if to warn the Croat off the tactic.
The Ukrainian is still a work in progress, rising from World No 89 to her current No 24, and has added improving net play to her game over the course of this season, which she displayed brilliantly on big points.
A high backhand volley saved 1 of only 2 break points she faced in the 8th game, and the business end of the set saw her pull off several bold drive volleys successfully.
Vekic’s role in the overall quality of the match cannot be underestimated as the 23-year-old calmly withstood Yastremska’s power, counter-punching well when necessary, but also unafraid to give her opponent a taste of her own forehand weaponry.
3 consecutive service winners extricated Vekic from the 4th game, the only one in which she faced a break point and, as she built a 6-4 lead in the tiebreak, it was her own strokes that seemed more solid.
With her back to the wall, though, Yastremska produced 4 jaw-dropping points in which she blitzed returns and one-two punches harder than ever, and stole the set from under Vekic’s nose.
Although the Croat rebounded well to win the first 8 points on her serve, Yastremska’s confidence was now sky-high, dinking and dropping balls for winners, coupled with her still-rampant power.
An off forehand garnered the Ukrainian’s first break of the set for 3-2 and, while Vekic continued to put up resistance, 2 tightly contested games in a row went her way.
Strong serving saved a break-back point en route to a 4-2 hold, and Vekic’s last stand was ended by a ferocious backhand return winner on Yastremska’s 3rd break point for a 5-2 lead.
Shaking off Vekic desperately unleashing on return, the youngest player in the Zhuhai draw sent down her 4th ace of the day and 3 more service winners to set up a decisive final round-robin match against No 1 seed Bertens to determine the semi-finalist from the Azalea Group later this week.
“She’s a good player – a bit uncomfortable for me,” mused Yastremska, who lost to the Dutchwoman 3 weeks ago in the second round of Beijing
“But it’s OK, I’m just going to go and play – I don’t have another option.”