The Last Opponent

At the 2021 U.S. Open, Maria Sakkari split tiebreak sets with Bianca Andreescu in the fourth round. Andreescu won the first and was two points away from winning the second and with it the match, but Sakkari fought to level the contest. At 3-all in the third set, the match a three-hour slugfest at this point, Andreescu’s legs were gone. She fought gamely, but her face was a mask of agony for the final half-hour. At times, she was cramping after every point. It was painful to watch — Andreescu’s talent and will to win are nearly bottomless, but her body had been ground to dust. There was nothing left.

As Andreescu battled her failing legs, Sakkari looked fine. This is what she does. Physically, she has few equals on tour. Her arms are heavily muscled, but her cardiovascular capabilities are equally impressive. She never seems to get tired. Coupled with her easy power, she is a menacing opponent. She won the last three games of the match against Andreescu to move into the quarterfinals.

After outlasting Andreescu, Sakkari stepped on court against Karolina Plíšková, the Wimbledon runner-up. With a marathon under her belt in the previous round, the match looked likely to be a challenge. Instead, Sakkari dismissed Plíšková 6-4, 6-4. She lost eight points on serve. Against the 4th seed in the tournament. It was a dominant, dominant win, reaffirming Sakkari’s supreme serving ability. Her delivery is hard to read — she’s not an ace machine, but is a fantastic spot server. She has played many matches in which her serve has easily been the dominant shot on court. Not only is Sakkari a brilliant server, she has firepower from the baseline. She defends well. When she is on, there is no obvious spot to attack.

Entering the U.S. Open semifinals, there was a good argument that Sakkari was the favorite to win the title. Sabalenka, the second seed, was there, but Sakkari had been in better form. The other semifinalists were teenagers. Sakkari had made a major semifinal earlier that year at Roland-Garros and nearly won it. She looked primed to win her first major.

Instead, Emma Raducanu beat Sakkari 6-1, 6-4. Sakkari had a handful of break points early on, couldn’t convert any, and was against the wall from there. The only moments of tension were when she battled to avoid a double break deficit in the second set. Raducanu was flawless, yes, but Sakkari was unable to impress her game on the rising star.

It’s not that Sakkari is a choker — at times, she can be extremely clutch. Last year in Miami, she saved six match points en route to beating Jessica Pegula. She hit winners on five of them. Sakkari’s yips seem less about the immediate fear of winning and more about a wariness of what awaits at the upper echelon of the game. Sakkari is becoming more and more consistent — she became #3 in the world midway through Indian Wells — but it still feels a bit like she still sits on the second tier of stars, behind the likes of Barty, Osaka, Świątek, Krejčíková, Badosa, and other big title winners.

*****

Sakkari has been in imperious form during the Indian Wells tournament. In the semifinals — often the round that is a stumbling block for her — she clashed with Paula Badosa, the defending champion. Sakkari breadsticked her in the third set, serving out the match at love, feeling no nerves.

The final against Iga Świątek presented an opportunity for Sakkari to launch herself into the very upper reaches of the elite in one fell swoop. She would not only capture a first big title, but she would leapfrog Świątek to claim the #2 ranking. Sakkari had beaten the 2020 Roland-Garros champion in three of their four meetings, including a huge fourth-round upset in Paris last year. Sakkari being able to take her chances to win seemed a bigger question than whether or not she would have chances to win.

*****

It wasn’t that Sakkari seemed crippled by the nerves, but she never seemed to be totally free of them. Early on, Świątek struggled badly with her serve, double faulting four times in her first two service games. Sakkari broke her both times, but couldn’t consolidate. When the match settled into a more typical pattern late in the first set, Sakkari couldn’t find a way to win points on her second serve, and Świątek quickly broke to take the opening stanza.

Sakkari didn’t go away in the second set — at 0-1, she went for a big second serve and forced an error, then saved a two break points to hold. She crushed a couple forehand winners in Świątek’s next service game. The 2020 Roland-Garros champion then picked up speed, though, delivering an offensive and defensive masterclass. Two breaks of Sakkari’s serve came in short order.

This, I thought, was the biggest difference between the players. Sakkari, though she played well at times, was never at her best. Świątek found her top level early in the second set, then never let go of it. Every Sakkari miscue became that much more painful, since it was obvious she wasn’t getting any help from her opponent. Sakkari didn’t serve that well, but she hit her share of service winners. Her backhand was erratic for part of the match, but she hit some remarkable counterpunching shots from that wing. Sakkari’s plight lay in stringing such moments together rather than producing them at all.

*****

Indian Wells has still been a productive tournament for Sakkari. Sure, she’s still without a big title, but it’s hard to imagine that will last much longer. The win over Badosa in the semifinals was one of the best wins of her career. She is #3 in the world and her game is without a big weakness. She continues to sail upwards.

Sakkari celebrates after whacking a forehand winner past Świątek. Screenshot: WTA

Her spotty performances in some big matches may not even be a big enough deal to be a cause for concern. Every player suffers from the fear of winning at some point (if that is indeed the reason Sakkari has struggled). Logically, it’s clear that being afraid of winning makes no sense, it is what all players aspire to, but this is a lesson that has to be experienced rather than learned. Sakkari breaking through for many big titles in the future looks likely. It will then become clear that she had no reason to doubt herself.

The top of the game is an unforgiving place, as Sakkari will know well after going up against Świątek’s flawless tennis in the second set of the Indian Wells final. Still, Sakkari need not be wary of what is to come. Her last opponent to overcome before winning a big title is herself rather than whoever is on the other side of the net. Any doubts Sakkari may have are conquerable because her tennis is ready.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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