Maria Sakkari spoke to Sport360 and WTA Insider about her training with the Safins, her rough start to 2018 and how she moved past it.
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.”
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.