Sakkari: Ostrava Has Been A Week Filled With Positives

WASHINGTON, October 23, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Maria Sakkari, the 25-year-old rising star from Greece, was asked by a reporter earlier this week during a virtual videoconference what she would like to achieve in her last tournament of the 2020 season, at the WTA Premier J&T Banka Ostrava Open, in Ostrava, Czech Republic. Without any hesitation, she exclaimed: “I mean, of course, win the tournament! Who comes here and doesn’t have that goal?

“We haven’t played much. [The WTA] gives us a chance to play an amazing event here, which is great. I’m really pumped and super motivated to win the tournament. I might lose the next round, but that’s my goal.”

The unseeded, 23rd-ranked Sakkari reached the Ostrava semifinals with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 win over No. 32 Ons Jabeur of Tunisia in one hour and 38 minutes Friday afternoon inside Ostravar Arena. Her next opponent will be No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who beat No. 7 seed Elise Mertens from Belgium, 6-4, 6-1.

Meanwhile, the other semifinal will pair No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, a 0-6, 6-4, 6-0 winner over 73rd-ranked qualifier Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain, against No. 26 Jennifer Brady from the United States. Brady overcame 47th-ranked qualifier Veronika Kudermetova of Russia, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-1.

Although Jabeur dominated the early going, winning the opening set 6-3 and led 3-2 at the beginning of the second set, Sakkari recovered nicely. She went ahead 4-3 after consolidating a break, and broke Jabeur, again, for a 5-3 advantage. Sakkari won the middle set by ripping a forehand winner to force a decider.

Then, Sakkari jumped ahead in the final set 3-0 with back-to-back breaks of Jabeur’s serve, the second time after the Tunisian double-faulted on break point. Once again, Sakkari consolidated the break to take a 4-0 lead and after both held, she led 5-1. Sakkari closed strong, winning the final three points of the match and finishing with her fifth break of Jabeur’s serve. It’s the sixth time this year Sakkari has come back to win after losing the first set.

After beating the always tricky shot repertoire of Jabeur, which includes lots of slice and drop shots, Sakkari said, “Knowing that I can stay on court for a long time gives me a lot of help and hope. I thought to myself, ‘Stay with her, stay with her, stay with her.’

“Finally, I got that break [in the second set] I was hoping for. Things got better for me after that.”

Sakkari finished with seven aces, no double faults and won 79 percent (34 of 43) of her first-serve points – up from her season average of 67 percent – and 52 percent (12 of 23) of her second serves. Sakkari saved three of the five break-points she faced.

In Jabeur’s final match of the season, she hit six aces, committed two double faults and won 68 percent (38 of 56) of her first-serve points. Sakkari outpointed Jabeur 90-73. The Tunisian’s season ended with a 23-11 win-loss record.

“When I was starting my career, I had people telling me I could not play indoors,” Sakkari said prior to her quarterfinal match against Jabeur. “It was a big mistake listening to them. I’ve now proved myself that I can play indoors. I’ve developed my game that I can be dangerous indoors. My serve is big, playing more aggressive. I’m super happy I’ve proven everyone wrong.”

Sakkari arrived in Ostrava refreshed after a brief respite following her third-round departure from Roland Garros. “I had three days off after Paris, saw my friends and did things outside of tennis,” she said, beaming a smile. “I saw my family, slept a lot, and ate some great Greek food. That’s always my getaway.”

Sakkari’s win-loss record has improved to 20-10 with three straight wins this week in Ostrava – against Kristyna Pliskova, top seed and World No. 5 Elina Svitolina, and Jabeur. She is into her second semifinal of the year following her last four finish indoors at St. Petersburg in February.

When Sakkari was asked during her virtual videoconference Friday by Tennis TourTalk if there’s anything she’s learned about herself this week, especially with the end of the season nearing, she said: “The fact that I’m still playing well and better than at the beginning of the season is a positive that I’ll take with me to next year.”

J&T Banka Ostrava Open news & notes

• No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka won 10 of the last 12 games against No. 7 seed Elise Mertens during her 6-4, 6-1 quarterfinal victory. It was a rematch of last month’s US Open quarterfinals, when Azarenka won 6-1, 6-0. The 31-year-old Azarenka overcame Mertens’ 28 winners by hitting 21 of her own. Mertens was appearing in her Tour-leading seventh quarterfinal of the season.

“I feel she adjusted her game a bit from New York, so it took me a bit of time to adapt to that,” Azarenka said during her videoconference with reporters. “Today, I didn’t expect the same result, but I did feel like I was really in control after I adjust my game – I felt I made it very difficult for her to earn points.”

• Unseeded Jennifer Brady fired 14 aces and hit 27 winners in her win over qualifier Veronika Kudermetova, which advanced her to her fourth singles semifinal of the season. The World No. 26 needed one hour and 57 minutes to win in the first head-to-head between the two. Kudermetova finished with 31 winners but also committed 38 unforced errors.

“ I think it’s knowing that during the match, just something clicks,” said Brady, who won for the fifth time after losing the first set and is 13-3 since the tour restart in August. “I find out what’s working well, or maybe I start serving better or returning more aggressive. 

“I think with each match that I play, [I’m] eating more confidence or more experience through being down or being able to come back and win. Not focusing my energy on the fact that I lost the first set, and focus it on how can I win the second set and maybe force a third set. 

“The two three-set matches that I’ve played, the third sets, I’m just feeling really strong mentally and physically.”

• Imagine dropping the first 10 games of the match, then winning 12 straight and garnering victory. It’s what happened to No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka, the highest seed remaining, during her improbable victory over qualifier Sara Sorribes Tormo Friday night.

Twice, Sabalenka was a point away from falling behind 6-0, 5-0, but came back and snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat in two hours and two minutes. She finished with 47 winners – 41 of them coming in the final two sets.

“I would say it was 0-10 actually!” laughed Sabalenka at the thought during her videoconference. “I just wanted to win at least one game, I didn’t want to lose 6-0, 6-0. It would be really crazy and too much.”

Here’s how Sabalenka recalled her rollercoaster tale of two streaks: “I was, like, out of the game, and I didn’t know why. I was just going for shots, really crazy, trying to make winners, and then I just cooled down a little bit, made one step back, and just tried to put more balls back and tried to go through her backhand.

“It helped me to come back. After I won three games in a row, I kind of knew that this was a good sign, and if I just kept going the same way, I will find my game, and that’s what happened.”

Sabalenka will see double duty on semifinal Saturday. Following her singles semifinal against Jennifer Brady, she and Elise Mertens will team in a doubles semifinal match against No. 4 seeds Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium and Demi Schuurs from the Netherlands, after suitable rest, of course.

• Play Saturday begins at noon (CET) with the first doubles semifinal that matches unseeded Gaby Dabrowski of Canada and Luisa Stefani from Brazil against No. 2 seeds and former World No. 1s Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, both from the Czech Republic.

Then, not before 2 p.m., it’s the first singles semifinal between Maria Sakkari and No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka followed not before 3:30 p.m. by the second single semifinal matching No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka and Jennifer Brady.