Gritty Paolini outlasts Vekic in an epic, earns a shot at glory

Gritty Paolini outlasts Vekic in an epic, earns a shot at glory

‘Fight for every ball’: Paolini refused to throw in the towel despite being a set down and falling behind in the third. | Photo: Getty Images

Women’s tennis is in a unique place where there is space for both the familiar and the novel. There have been repeat Slam champions in the recent past, like Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka. There have also been first-time winners like Marketa Vondrousova and surprise finalists like Zheng Qinwen.

Wimbledon 2024 has stayed true to this, and on Thursday, Barbora Krejcikova and Jasmine Paolini became the latest to join this assorted bunch, setting up Saturday’s final following come-from-behind victories.

While Krejcikova, the 2021 French Open champion, overcame Elena Rybakina, the 2022 All England winner, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, Paolini edged a two-hour 51-minute thriller over Croatia’s Donna Vekic 2-6, 6-4, 7-6(8).

In all fairness, Paolini is no novice. The 28-year-old finished runner-up to Swiatek at the French Open just a month ago and entered Wimbledon seeded seventh.

But she would have been nobody’s bet to make a second straight final, for she had never won a main draw match at SW19, and the last woman to make the title-round in both Paris and London back to back was the legendary Serena Williams.

“It was really tough,” said a beaming Paolini after the Centre Court epic. “She was hitting winners everywhere and I was struggling. But I told myself to fight and there is no place better than here to fight for every ball. I will remember this forever.”

For a good part of the contest, it seemed like she would end up remembering it for the wrong reasons. Paolini was clearly the craftier player, but Vekic’s superior weight of stroke was a big advantage.

Vekic had six inches on Paolini, and it showed in the way she muscled the ball. A solitary break in the fifth game was enough for Vekic to take the first set, as she won 16 of 19 service points and blasted 12 winners to Paolini’s five.

In the second, the Italian raised her game, serving better, scurrying all over, making Vekic hit the extra shot and pulling the trigger herself when the opportunity arose. Paolini gave the ball a lot more air and hit with more spin to make Vekic’s flat strokes difficult to control.

This was evident in the 10th game of the second set when Vekic served at 4-5 and Paolini hurried her 28-year-old opponent into making two forehand errors. A nervy Vekic then dumped a double fault before a slapped forehand winner from Paolini levelled matters.

The decider was a one-hour 25-minute slugfest that will eventually come to define this duel. In the first eight games, the two traded breaks twice. Paolini hit at varying trajectories, giving Vekic multiple problems. But the latter managed to hold on, battling fatigue by going for the point-ending extreme angle and mostly finding it.

Vekic saved two match-points — the second with a terrific down-the-line forehand — and Paolini two break-points, as the match unsurprisingly slipped into the 10-point tie-breaker.

They were again neck to neck, fighting to 8-8, before two forehand errors from Vekic sealed Paolini’s spot in the summit clash.

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