The stand-out match of the bottom half of the women’s singles draw at the 2018 Wimbledon Championships is none other than the blockbuster clash between the dangerous Donna Vekic, who won over many hearts here at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club last year, and the recent Roland Garros finalist and reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens, who is seeded fourth in the competition this year.
This match will be played on the opening day of the tournament and the upset alert of this encounter is definitely switched on considering the quality of Vekic’s grass-court tennis but Stephens’ play also has the ability to prevent the upset from happening.
Vekic’s grass-court history
Vekic was involved in a marathon thriller with home favourite and eventual semifinalist Johanna Konta in the second round on Centre Court last year, falling 8-10 in a three-hour and 10-minute contest. Nonetheless, despite the loss, she managed to win over some of the British hearts for her fight, or perhaps due to the title she won in Nottingham last year as well. That was the Croatian’s second WTA title and her impressive play initially made her a dangerous floater in the draw. Her win over Konta in the final was her best win on this surface throughout her career.
This year, Vekic returns to Wimbledon also as a dangerous unseeded player whom seeded players will look to avoid in the early rounds. A slow start for the Stephens could result in a shock result on the opening day of play. Having never passed the second round here, Vekic could earn her biggest victory (by ranking) over Stephens on Monday. However, she enters the tournament in undesirable form, falling early in Birmingham and Eastbourne though she received tough draws, making the semifinals in Nottingham where she was the defending champion. Nonetheless, she managed to take a set off world number five Elina Svitolina but was not able to pull off the huge upset.
Stephens’ grass-court history
This time last year, Stephens was ranked 957th in the world. In 2018, she returns to Wimbledon as the US Open champion, Roland Garros runner-up, Miami Open champion and the world number four. It all started with a first-round loss to Alison Riske last year, though she has reached the quarterfinals back in 2013. Stephens owns a decent 19-12 win-loss record on the surface and her best win was a top-10 victory over Carla Suarez Navarro in 2015 at Eastbourne.
Similarly, Stephens was also once involved in a thriller at Wimbledon though it happened three years ago. She fell to Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-8 in the deciding set despite leading 5-2 and being two points away from the win, just days after she saved match points to defeat Mandy Minella. Stephens will be looking to make just her second second-week appearance here but faces some tricky oppositions early on. She came into the tournament without any match practice on grass, with her last result being a finalist at Paris.
Head to Head: Lone affair goes the way of Stephens
The pair has only met once in the past — which resulted in a 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 win for the American. That match occurred in 2016 on clay and hence should not hold much significance towards the result of this match on Monday. Both players have developed their games since then, and it should be a spectacular and high-quality encounter to look forward to.
Can Vekic pull off the upset, or will Stephens assert her authority?
It will be an interesting clash considering Vekic’s status as a dangerous player, and Stephens cannot afford to have a slow start to the match. Vekic’s powerful playing style is extremely efficient on grass but the American has the world-class ability to remain solid at the baseline and producing power while counterpunching, and hard-hitters like Vekic will often struggle against her.
Stephens’ high first-serve percentage often gives her the chance to build the rhythm on her serves, and mixing those serves will make it unpredictable for Vekic to find her momentum. The Croatian has to step up her game while exhibiting confidence — any form of displeasure and frustration with herself will see the cool-as-a-cucumber Stephens taking the advantage and strolling to the win.
Vekic needs to be in her top form for any chance to rattle off the upset, though one factor which could go her way is Stephens’ lack of match practice on the grass courts. The American needs to rely on her speed, which is crucial on this tricky surface and Vekic needs to have an aggressive mindset to overpower her opponent, though Stephens is capable of sending everything back.
Stephens should be able to eke out the tough opener with a win here, but do not be surprised if Vekic could steal a set off the American. It will be crucial to see Stephens’ form especially after reaching the final in Paris and achieving a new career-high ranking — the last time she made a Grand Slam final, she followed it up with an eight-match losing streak.
Match Prediction: Stephens d. Vekic in straight sets