Maria Sakkari is excited about experiencing the US Open with the support of the local Greek community, and is hoping herself and Stefanos Tsitsipas can do their country proud.
Sakkari is in awe of her fellow Greek’s rise this season, and was following closely when the 20-year-old Tsitsipas made history in Toronto earlier this month, becoming the youngest player to beat four top-10 opponents at a single tournament since the ATP World Tour was established in 1990.
After defeating Dominic Thiem (No. 8), Novak Djokovic (No. 10), Alexander Zverev (No. 3) and Kevin Anderson (No. 6), Tsitsipas fell to Rafael Nadal in the Toronto final, which coincided with his 20th birthday.
His run came on the heels of Sakkari’s runner-up showing in San Jose just one week earlier, where she was featuring in her maiden WTA final.
The Greek duo are both seeded at the US Open this fortnight, with Tsitsipas at No. 15 and Sakkari at 32.
“Oh my God, goosebumps. He’s, I cannot describe it… he’s unbelievable,” Sakkari said of Tsitsipas in Cincinnati last week.
“The thing is that I’m not going to watch his matches again. I couldn’t watch, I couldn’t watch. I was talking to my best friend back home, she was watching as well, and I told her, ‘How can you watch my matches?’ I was watching Stefanos and I was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s this?’ The match with Anderson and of course with Nadal the second set. It’s incredible.
“He’s 20 years old, you look at him inside the court, the balance that he has, the choices, the decisions; it’s something unique.
“He’s one guy who inspires me. After doing what he did, I want to do the same thing. He’s a player and an athlete I’m going to look after and it’s very important for me to have him because if I’m alone on the tour (from Greece), I have no one to look after.
“So for me, even if he’s a guy and it’s something different, Stefanos is a role model for us and for me.”
She added: “It’s unbelievable what he has done. I’m not going to say more things because he might read them and get stressed but I have very high expectations for him. But he’s going to get to the top very, very soon, he’s already [there]. It’s good to look after another player from your country, and we are only two. I think it’s a great thing and it’s great for our country.”
Sakkari has been rather inspirational herself. The 23-year-old is one of the most successful tennis players in Greek tennis history and her recent appearance in the final of the WTA Premier-level tournament in San Jose has helped her reach a career-high ranking of No. 30.
As Sakkari puts it, she is a “proud Spartan”, and is happy to fly the flag for her country around the globe. On Monday at the US Open, the large Greek community present in the area is likely to come out in full force to support both her and Tsitsipas in their first-round matches, with Sakkari taking on local wildcard Asia Muhammad, and her countryman facing Spanish veteran qualifier Tommy Robredo.
“I think now it’s going to be even more because having two players doing well the weeks right before the US Open – of course it feels great. To see Greeks outside of Greece coming to support you, they’re even more passionate. So I’m looking forward to see what’s going to happen,” said Sakkari ahead of the Open.
Coached by 2002 Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson, along with Tom Hill – a recent graduate from Pepperdine University – Sakkari has made steady progress over the past 12 months, and is already up 21 spots in the rankings since the start of the season.
“Of course I’ve improved. Two years ago, or one year ago, before I started with Thomas, I was like two metres behind the baseline and I was running down everything, which was enough to make it to the top-100 but then since I started with Thomas, we stepped inside the court. Of course sometimes you have to stay back if the other one is hitting hard. I have improved a lot my offensive game,” she explains.
“Now I have a clear idea of what I have to do on court. Of course you cannot do it every single match. If I can do it every single match it’s going to be great but the thing is that I will try to do it more consistently and every match have like a base. And of course the serve has to be quite big. But now I think I’m more used to the level, I get to play and practice with all the top girls. And some of the girls I’ve played twice or three times, like Naomi Osaka, or Venus Williams.”
Sakkari looked up to Kim Clijsters growing up, along with Serena Williams and Justine Henin, and is constantly trying to work on her aggressiveness on court.
More players are taking notice of her on tour and her on-court fighting spirit has already troubled several top stars.
“That’s what I want to get to. That’s my goal. I’m not Maria Sharapova, I’m not Serena Williams – okay I’m strong but I’m not tall, I have a good serve but not a serve or strokes that will make me win the match with one shot. My goal is to become a very solid player and that’s what I’m working on.
“I want to become one of the players who is not going to be an easy draw for the other ones.”
She may not be one of the tall players on tour with massive groundstrokes but a quick look at the current top-10 in the world rankings reveals that the shorter, counter-punchers are enjoying lots of success at the moment.
“It’s not only Simona [Halep], of course she’s No. 1, it’s also Caroline [Wozniacki], Sloane [Stephens], [Elina] Svitolina, [Angelique] Kerber… which I think gives me a lot of confidence to try to be one of them,” said Sakkari.
Sakkari and Johansson teamed up a year ago and the partnership paid dividends almost immediately as she made the third round at the 2017 US Open and the semis in Wuhan shortly after.
She spent the offseason training with him in Monaco and Dubai, and through him, she got to spend time on court with his friends, star siblings Marat Safin and Dinara Safina.
“I have a lot of confidence in him and I admire him,” Sakkari says of her Swedish coach.
“He inspires me, that’s what I told him the first time when we sat down, I told him that having him outside the court, he inspires me to play, which I think is the most important thing. Tom [Hill] is also doing a great job following the instructions of Thomas then he’s not here.
“We all know Thomas was a great player and only thinking that he has done what you’re doing and many more things and he has been in the same situation and it’s also the chemistry that you have with one person.
“I think we have a very good partnership for that reason. Even outside and inside the court, we get to understand each other, so that’s a very big thing and that’s why many players are changing coaches maybe after a couple of months because they don’t have this, that’s my opinion.”
Yet to reach the second week of a major, Sakkari feels ready to take that next step at the Slams.
“I think I’ve played the third round in all four Slams, so for me making the fourth round, the second week, it’s something very big and something that I really want to achieve,” she says.