Simona Halep believes Serena Williams deserves to be seeded No. 1 at tournaments in her comeback from maternity leave “because she left as No. 1 in the world”.
Serena is back to the tour following a 13-month absence during which she had her first child, Olympia, last September, and is unranked. The American can enter up to eight tournaments though with a protected ranking of 22 (hasn’t been unseeded at an event since Cincinnati 2011), but cannot be seeded with that protected ranking.
That meant that the 23-time Grand Slam champion faced off with her eighth-seeded sister Venus as early as the third round in Indian Wells on Monday.
It prompted many to raise questions over the WTA rules and whether a player returning from maternity leave should also be given a ‘protected seeding’.
“I was thinking about Serena in this tournament, and also we were talking a little bit with my coach (Darren Cahill). And I think she should have been actually No. 1 seed in this tournament because she left as No. 1 in the world,” said current world No. 1 Halep on Tuesday following her 7-5, 6-1 victory over Wang Qiang in the fourth round at Indian Wells.
“And to give birth, it’s the best thing in the world. It’s more than a sport. So I think she should have been ranked as she left. Not taking the ranking because she didn’t play tournaments, but just protected ranking for — I don’t know how many tournaments you have, like, eight. She could be the No. 1 seed for that, for those tournaments. This is my opinion.”
Halep is echoing her coach Darren Cahill’s thoughts, who tweeted the following during Venus and Serena’s third round clash that was won by the older Williams sister 6-3, 6-4.
this match should not be happening in a 3rd round. Serena (and all mothers) should be protected by the WTA and allowed to use their protected ranking for seeding, if applicable. Women should not be penalized for giving birth by starting from zero 😊
— Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill) March 12, 2018
Halep was in the stands watching the all-Williams clash on Monday night, despite being scheduled first on Stadium 1 on Tuesday.
“It was my idea last night, actually,” said the Romanian, who next faces Petra Martic in the quarter-finals.
“It’s always nice to watch them. I love the way that they are motivated and they are still playing at this age, Serena with the kid. So it’s a great thing what they do for sport, and it’s great that tennis has them.
“It was really fun to come out here and watch the game. And also, you know, I have many things to learn from them. That’s why I’m trying just to go in to watch every time I can…
“I’m the world No. 1 in this moment, but I just watched the best player in the world,” she says of Serena.
A post shared by Simona Halep (@simonahalep) on
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.”
A post shared by Maria Sakkari (@sakkattack7) on
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.”