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Jasmine Paolini defeats crestfallen Donna Vekic in Wimbledon semi-final

As a 57th and final unforced error sprung off Donna Vekic’s forehand and into the tramline, Jasmine Paolini ran towards her player box in complete and utter euphoria. This year’s breakthrough star on the tennis tour – that goes for men and women – has reached a second Grand Slam final in a matter of weeks. At the end of this titanic battle, she blew a kiss to her corner and then consoled her heartbroken opponent.

As the old adage goes, it felt cruel that somebody had to lose. Both Vekic and Paolini were contesting their first semi-final at Wimbledon and their desperation to reach Saturday’s showpiece was writ large throughout this absorbing battle of wills. In the end, only a first-to-10 final-set tie-break could separate them – and even then, there was barely a flip of a coin between them. Match of the tournament? Possibly so.

First though, spare a thought for Vekic. A player who, by the end of this swashbuckling semi-final – which broke new ground at two hours and 51 minutes as the longest semi-final in Wimbledon women’s singles history – had put herself through the emotional wringer. There were smiles, there were screams. There were tears.

Donna Vekic was in tears by the end of her semi-final
Donna Vekic was in tears by the end of her semi-final (Getty Images)

The boiling point was a titanic game at 5-5 in the third set, when Paolini held serve despite Vekic chucking everything and the kitchen sink at the Italian. Vekic went on to save a second match point, dragging this duel to the breaker, yet despite the Croatian’s thumping groundstrokes, Paolini’s resilience and tenacity won the day. They have a word for a fighter in Italian, all too appropriate for this 5ft 4in superstar: Il Combattente.

“It was tough, she was hitting winners everywhere,” she said on court afterwards, in front of a crowd who mostly rooted for the resolute Italian throughout. “I was repeating myself to keep fighting. I’m so happy with this win. This match I will remember forever.”

More history: Paolini becomes the first woman since Serena Williams in 2016 to reach the final at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. The American lost in Paris eight years ago – like Paolini to Iga Swiatek five weeks ago – before going on to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish. An omen, perhaps, for two days’ time?

“These last months have been crazy for me,” Paolini added. “I love playing tennis, it’s amazing to be here, playing on this stadium, it’s a dream.”

Paolini will likely play Elena Rybakina, champion of two years ago and favourite in the second semi-final against Barbora Krejcikova, in Saturday’s final. More omens too – Paolini defeated the Kazakh in that run to the final at the French Open.

Even prior to this semi-final though, both women had broken records by reaching the final four. Vekic, the first Croatian woman to make the semi-finals in 25 years; Paolini, the first Italian ever.

Paolini is a breakthrough star in the tennis world this year
Paolini is a breakthrough star in the tennis world this year (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Unseeded Vekic was close to quitting the sport a matter of weeks ago
Unseeded Vekic was close to quitting the sport a matter of weeks ago (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The start here was dominated by Vekic, brutally pouncing on Paolini’s clearest weakness: her second-serve The unseeded player’s weight of shot, particularly off her cleanly struck backhand, was too much for Paolini and, after an opening half-an-hour salvo in which Vekic surged into a 5-2 double-break lead, the Italian had won just four out of 15 points behind her second-serve.

The Croatian, who made her debut here as a teenager in 2013 but has only reached the second week once before, was commanding the semi-final stage on a rare day of sunshine in SW19. A hold to love took her one step closer to Saturday’s final. She was close to quitting the sport a matter of weeks ago but was persuaded otherwise by coach Pam Shriver; now she was a set away from the biggest match in the sport.

The absence of Paolini’s sparkle eary on was curious. Where was the composure and panache of Tuesday night, when the seventh seed so clinically dismantled Coco Gauff’s conqueror Emma Navarro in under an hour? The audible groans of the well-assembled Italian press in the media box told much of the story. Yet Paolini did not give in. It was agonising at times, but she battled through some torturous moments on serve in the second-set, saving three break points with the considerable weight of 15,000 fans on Centre Court behind her small frame. Vekic’s level dropped ever so slightly, in a back-and-forth which saw some glaring errors from the Croat. Errors that would prove costly.

Paolini’s only inroad on return came, pivotally, with her opponent serving to stay in the set. A couple of booming returns, a double fault, and a forehand winner sealed the most unlikely of second-set snatches. The Italian turned and roared to her box, back in the contest through nothing more than unadulterated willpower.

Paolini celebrates beating Vekic (Aaron Chown/PA)
Paolini celebrates beating Vekic (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Wire)
Vekic struggled to contain her emotions by the end
Vekic struggled to contain her emotions by the end (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Neither of their previous three matches had gone the distance. But then again neither of those came with the added carrot of a Grand Slam final spot at stake. Vekic took a minute, or five, in the bathroom in an attempt to decompress and recompose for the decider. And it paid dividends immediately, with a break of serve as she reasserted her dominance. Vekic was again the aggressor, with Paolini simply doing her bit to hang in there. Doggedly grinding away, scurrying around the court, in the hope a chance would surface.

And so it did. Paolini found a spring in her step, Vekic went wayward suddenly, and the Italian fist-pumped her way to 3-3 as Vekic slapped a forehand into the net. At the two-hour mark, they were completely level-pegging. And then they weren’t. Paolini was left rooted to the grass at the net as she netted a low forehand volley. Faced with two break points, a 66mph second serve was appropriately walloped back by Vekic, who recaptured her break as quickly as she lost it.

Two more holds of serve would do it for Vekic. But she failed at the first hurdle, double-faulting and misfiring her way to defeat from the jaws of victory. Paolini held to love to force her opponent to save her bacon and scampered to match point – but Vekic found her first serve at the dying moment to keep this semi-final ticking.

Then came the game of the match, an engrossing to-and-fro of shots, rallies and emotions. Paolini held but saved two break points in the process as Vekic remonstrated with her player box, almost in disbelief at the course events were taken. One final forehand a millimetre out on Hawkeye sent the Croat over the edge, as she burst into tears at the change-of-ends.

Was all composure lost? Not quite. Vekic saved a second match point after a stunning rally with a forehand winner down the line and dragged herself somehow to a first-to-10 tiebreak. A breaker which was a clear microcosm of the match, nip-and-tuck throughout, until Vekic misfired two forehands to see it all slip away.

Weeping at one end; ecstasy at the other. A clash for the ages.

#Jasmine #Paolini #defeats #crestfallen #Donna #Vekic #Wimbledon #semifinal

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