For the first five tournaments of the year, Maria Sakkari couldn’t win a match.
The 22-year-old Greek, currently ranked 58 in the world, had a strong end to her 2017, reaching the semi-finals in Wuhan, as a qualifier, then spent part of her offseason practicing with ex-world No. 1s Marat Safin and Dinara Safina in Monaco, under the watchful eye of her coach Thomas Johansson, before heading to Dubai for more training.
But the beginning of 2018 didn’t go according to plan as Sakkari lost her openers in Shenzhen, Sydney, Melbourne, St. Petersburg and Doha before claiming her first of the year in the qualifying rounds in Dubai.
She ended up losing in the final round of qualifying there to Sam Stosur, and was left still searching for a first main draw victory of the season.
That win finally came in Acapulco but it is Indian Wells where Sakkari really found her groove.
She stormed into the fourth round in the California desert without dropping a set, taking out Donna Vekic, No. 16 seed Ashleigh Barty and No. 17 seed Coco Vandeweghe along the way.
Her celebration with her team after that win over Vandeweghe on Sunday said it all.
“We all worked very hard during our offseason and it was really tough for us when I started the year without winning a match for like four, five tournaments. We’re extremely happy that I’m playing well and doing well, feeling well and enjoying myself, that’s why we’re all very excited,” said Sakkari, who faces Naomi Osaka in the last-16 on Tuesday.
Sakkari hired Johansson, the 2002 Australian Open champion, before the US Open last year and she reached a career-high ranking of 48 a couple of months later.
Johansson admits the beginning of 2018 was tricky but he had no doubt the victories would come.
“I think the expectations were a little bit too high,” the Swedish ex-world No. 7 told Sport360.
“We had a very very good preseason, we spent three weeks in Monaco and 10 days in Dubai and I think pretty much every day she played tennis like she is here (in Indian Wells).
“And then of course the expectations were big coming into the New Year. First week she got sick. So the first two weeks of the year they were out. Then she came back a little bit in Melbourne.
“We’ve been working really hard on a daily basis. And I think if you keep your head high, and if you work hard every day, the wins are going to come.”
Against Vandeweghe, Sakkari was oozing confidence and appeared to be completely in her element.
“I think I was ready for that one,” Sakkari says with a grin.
“Of course I played really against Donna in the first round but beating Ashleigh, which I think she’s the best player on the WTA tour, I think she’s by far the best and she can do anything on court, that gave me a lot of confidence actually so I went out there and I was confident in myself. I knew that I could take her (Vandeweghe) down.”
Vandeweghe is a player who often tries to intimidate her opponents but Sakkari was “relaxed” and unfazed by the American.
“I didn’t really care about what she was doing on the other side of the net. That’s her character, that’s her choice, I have to do my job so whatever she does it doesn’t affect me…
“I think I’m returning really well, I’m solid from the baseline and my serve is quite solid as well. I’m not scared, I had that rough beginning of the year, but now hard work is paying off.”
The slow, high-bouncing court at Indian Wells suits Sakkari’s game, who says it works well with her kick serve and forehand spin, and she’ll try to do more of the same when she faces Osaka in round four.
Not many players can claim that they’ve spent their offseason practicing with two former world No. 1s but Sakkari had the fortune of doing so in Monte Carlo end of last year with the Safins.
“It was great, I love them. They are extremely nice both of them, so funny. We had 10 days of practice, because Marat was practicing for an exhibition he had in London,” she explained.
“Thomas and Marat know each other really well as they played a lot together. So then Thomas asked him if he wanted to hit one day, and then one day became 10. It was great, they gave me a lot of advice, and we still talk quite often.”
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Osaka, who is having a great tournament herself, taking out Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Sachia Vickery on her way to the fourth round, said she’s looking forward to competing against someone who gets fired up like Sakkari.
“I feel like it would be a really fun match. She’s really athletic. I know she gets really pumped. I’m just looking forward to it,” said the Japanese youngster.
Sakkari has an athletic body that makes you wonder if she’s played other sports growing up.
“Yes I did a lot of sports. But my body, I was born like that, I think I have my father’s body, Spartan body,” she says with a smile.
Sakkari, whose mother Angelikí Kanellopoúlou was a professional top-50 tennis player, alluded to Greece’s economic problems on court after her third round win, and is proud of her accomplishments during such a tough time for her country.
“We all know that Greece is struggling financially. We don’t have help from the federation like the other countries. We have to do everything ourselves,” she said.
There aren’t many tennis players to come out of Greece but Sakkari’s rise coincides with her countryman’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, who was ranked No. 1 in juniors and this fortnight made the second round in Indian Wells before falling in three sets to fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem.
“Stefanos, I know him quite well, it’s actually impressive the way he plays. He’s very young, and he’s a very nice guy and I’m very happy for him. And I’m very happy that the two of us can do Greece proud outside of Greece,” said Sakkari.
Serena played three matches following a 404-day break from the sport during which she had her first child, Olympia, and got married.
Playing with a protected ranking, but unseeded at tournaments, the luck of the draw pit Serena against Venus in the third round at Indian Wells.
It is the earliest they had faced off since the very first time they played against one another at the 1998 Australian Open (not including WTA Finals round-robin matches).
Here are the biggest takeaways from Serena and Venus’ 29th meeting…
RUSTY BUT NOT TOO MUCH
Serena is understandably rusty, which was evident from the 31 unforced errors she committed against Venus. But the 36-year-old wasn’t missing by much, producing 22 winners compared to her sister’s 19 and showcasing some deft touches with drop shots and lobs that briefly interrupted Venus’ rhythm.
VENUS CAN BRING IT ON DEMAND
Heading into Indian Wells, Venus had played just four matches in 2018, losing her openers in Sydney and the Australian Open and winning her two Fed Cup singles rubbers against the Netherlands. But just as we saw from her last season, she is able to up her game at the big events and when it matters the most. The 37-year-old played some of the best tennis we’ve seen from her in a while, with her all-out attack game working perfectly for most of the match.
The world No. 8 painted the lines with rocket-like groundstrokes and showed no signs of rust, despite her lack of match play this season.
“I think this is the best she’s played in a while. She didn’t make a lot of errors. She served very consistently. You know, she just did everything great. For her, I think it was a really good match,” said Serena on Venus after their match.
UP FOR THE FIGHT
One thing that is very apparent is that Serena is determined to make her way back to the top of the game. We’ve seen it on the court with her battling wins over Zarina Diyas and Kiki Bertens, as well as her loss to Venus on Monday. Serena saved 4/8 break points she faced, broke Venus as she was serving for the match the first time and created a break point opportunity in the final game before surrendering.
We’ve also been seeing it off the court in her rhetoric during press conferences.
“Missing shots that I never miss, and so close. At least they’re in the margin. I’m getting there. It’s not exactly where I want to be, but, I mean, I’ll get there eventually,” Serena said on Monday.
“I haven’t played in over a year. It’s definitely not less disappointing. I wish it were, but it’s not. But then again, I wish it wasn’t. Then I wouldn’t be who I am. Yeah, so I just have a long way to go, and I’m looking forward to the journey.”
She also seems to have the right person in her corner to help her throughout that journey, in her coach Patrick Mouratoglou.
“If I expect a lot of myself, he expects a little bit more, which is interesting,” Serena said of Mouratoglou.
“But it’s good, because I have such high standards. And to work with someone that has even higher expectations is exactly what I need.”
Venus Williams produced some sizzling form to ease past her sister Serena 6-3, 6-4 and reach the fourth round at Indian Wells on Monday.
It was just the second win for Venus in her last 10 matches against Serena, who was contesting her first tournament back from a 13-month maternity leave. Venus is now 17-12 overall against her sister.
Coming into Indian Wells, the 37-year-old Venus had played just four matches in 2018, winning two matches in Fed Cup against the Netherlands and losing her openers in Sydney and Melbourne.
Only three people had ever defeated Serena on the hard courts of Indian Wells – Alexia Dechaume-Balleret, Mary Pierce and Victoria Azarenka. On Monday, Venus became the fourth.
“She played so well, I think it’s such a treat for everyone to see this match so early in her comeback. I always know that it’s never over until it’s over. She kept roaring back. I’m just lucky that I’ve played more matches than her right now,” said Venus after the win on court.
“I’m from right down the street, in Compton, California. This just shows that wherever you come from, if you put in the work and you believe in yourself, you can do anything.”
The sisters sat back-to-back on a golf buggy transporting them to Stadium 1 – “carpooling to work” as emcee Andrew Krasny told the crowd waiting for them to arrive.
It was the earliest round the Williamses have faced each other since their first meeting in the 1998 Australian Open (not including WTA Finals round-robin matches).
Serena had won eight of their previous nine encounters, including last year’s Australian Open final in Melbourne that gave her a 23rd Grand Slam title.
The first two games alone took 14 minutes.
The eighth-seeded Venus served first and had to a save a break point before holding. Serena saved three break points in her opening service game to level for 1-all.
Venus drew first blood, breaking for 4-2 and she sealed the set with back-to-back aces.
A string of errors from Serena saw her get broken at the start of the second set. The 36-year-old tried to break the rhythm in the next game, brining in Venus to the net with a sublime drop shot and getting the winner with a cheeky lob. But the older sister still held then broke again for a 3-0 lead.
Another drop shot from Serena gave her a break point in the next game and the two-time champion converted with a blink-and-you-miss-it return winner.
A stunning point of sheer power and delicate placement from Venus saw her slam down a down-the-line forehand winner to get two break points in game seven and she regained her two-break advantage on her second opportunity with yet another winner.
She got her first match point on an error from her opponent but Serena saved it with a backhand passing shot.
Some great defence from Serena drew an overhead error from Venus and suddenly the younger sibling had a break point. A double fault from Venus handed over the break as Serena kept herself alive in the contest.
Serena held for 4-5, forcing Venus to try and serve out the match for a second time.
Some nervy errors saw Venus face a break point but she found her serve when she needed it and this time did not falter, converting on her second match point opportunity to wrap up the victory in one hour and 26 minutes and set up a fourth round against Anastasija Sevastova, the No. 21 seed.