Sakkari Making Her Voice Heard In Abu Dhabi

Maria Sakkari (photo: @WTA_insider/Twitter)

WASHINGTON, January 11, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

For one set, Sofia Kenin played like a World No. 4 during her quarterfinal match against 22nd-ranked Maria Sakkari in the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open Monday. She took advantage of her opponent’s weaknesses and seized every opportunity that came her way. A victory today would have lifted her to a career-best No. 3 ranking.

However, the ninth seed Sakkari had other ideas. She learned from what went wrong, made the necessary adjustments – fought through some distractions, too – and went to work. Sakkari started fighting for every point and made her voice heard on the court during her 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 victory over the top seed Kenin that lifted her into Tuesday’s semifinal round against No. 4 seed Aryna Sabalenka.

Sakkari won the final 10 games during the tension-filled match for her fifth career victory against at Top 5 opponent.

Although the American was no stranger to facing Sakkari – this was their third career meeting and Kenin had never been on the losing side until Monday – she showed the importance of coming out early and broke the Greek rising star three times to win the first set. It was the first set Sakkari had lost in Abu Dhabi – and it would be the last set she dropped against Kenin.

“I think I was rushing a little bit too much at the beginning of the match,” Sakkari told Tennis TourTalk during her virtual news conference. “I didn’t really know what I had to do once I saw what I was doing wasn’t working. I tried a different way that actually worked. I tried to be more solid and make more balls.

“I think I did way too many errors and I was hitting too big when I didn’t have to. But I’m glad that once again I found the way to turn the match around.”

Kenin was unable to sustain the early momentum and that’s where Sakkari went to work and took charge, turning what at first look appeared to be a sure and disappointing defeat into a satisfying victory. Sakkari finished with nine aces and her serve was not broken during the final two sets after a shaky beginning. She outpointed Kenin 74-56 to reach her second straight semifinal following Ostrava last October.

“I think that one of the things that really helped me is that I realized that my ball is pretty heavy,” Sakkari said. “I have a lot of power and I have been using it the right way.

“Up until last year, I couldn’t really control my power. So, I had to take a little bit of pace off because I was hitting too hard and I was missing many shots. So, I think I’ve found a way and I’ve found my real pace on the court. When I have an opportunity, I go for it and that builds confidence.”

Sakkari will try to tap into her reservoir of confidence and match it against Sabalenka, who owns the longest current winning streak (13) in the WTA.

“Sabalenka is super confident now,” Sakkari said. “We know each other really well; we practice a lot together. She’s having a great career so far and she’s really young. She’s one of the toughest players to play out there. I beat her once, so I think I can do it again. I’m not saying I will for sure, but it’s going to be a very tough match for both.”

Lucky number 13 win for Sabalenka

World No. 10 Aryna Sabalenka came into her quarterfinal match with No. 6 seed Elena Rybakina riding high on a career-best 12-match winning streak. The last time she lost was to Ons Jabeur in last year’s Roland Garros and she avenged that loss by defeating the Tunisian on Sunday. Could Monday’s showdown against Rybakina translate into a lucky number 13 for Sabalenka? Yes, but it would take some time – nearly two hours.

Although Rybakina took a set off of the fourth seed Sabalenka after taking a double-break lead – the first to do so in Abu Dhabi – the 22-year-old Belarusian regrouped in the final set and kept fighting and won 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 for her third victory of the young 2021 season. Sabalenka closed out the victory on her third match point behind her big serve. She hit 30 winners to 37 unforced errors and broke her opponent’s serve three times, while Rybakina countered with 24 winners and 27 unforced errors.

“I learned it doesn’t matter when I have my opportunity,” Sabalenka told Tennis TourTalk. She’s into her third straight semifinal and her 29 victories last year tied her with Rybakina for second most in the WTA. “I just have to be ready for my opportunity and just keep going.”

Sabalenka’s next opportunity will come Tuesday afternoon when she faces Maria Sakkari for a berth in Wednesday’s final.

She said: “Already, I’m playing against players with different styles that are really good. … It doesn’t matter whom I playing. I will prepare. …

“I just like to play and have this fight. That’s my job and I’m enjoying it.”

Kostyuk survives slugfest with Sorribes Tormo

Eighteen-year-old Ukrainian teenager Marta Kostyuk didn’t win a single game in the first set of her WTA 500-series quarterfinal debut. But she survived a 145-point battle with unseeded Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain and was rewarded for both her courage and perseverance in a 0-6, 6-1, 6-4 win. Thanks no less to firing 41 winners, Kostyuk advanced to her first WTA semifinal.

After a couple of very uneven sets, Sorribes Tormo and Kostyuk got down to business in the lengthy decider that lasted nearly an hour. Kostyuk broke to go ahead 5-4 and served for the match and a place in the year’s first semifinal round. She gained a match point at 40-15 but got a bit anxious and hit a long return. However, Kostyuk didn’t throw away her next shot. On her second opportunity, she hit a two-fisted backhand that Sorribes Tormo was unable to successfully return that closed the book on both the final set – which equaled the length of the first two sets combined – and the match.

“I started to move my legs better; I started to look at the ball better, and I think the whole picture changed,” Kostyuk explained to reporters during her virtual press event, in which she described the feeling of turning around a 6-0, 1-0 deficit. “I stopped missing, and obviously I know that if I’m in the right spot, if I’m at the ball, it’s really tough to get, especially when I’m hitting close to the line. …

“I honestly still cannot believe I turned this match around. It just kind of feels like a dream.”

Kostyuk’s dream-come-true story continues Tuesday when she plays another unseeded player, No. 46 Veronika Kudermetova of Russia. Stay tuned.

Kudermetova jolts No. 2 seed Svitolina

By the luck of the draw, World No. 5 and second seed Elina Svitolina drew three consecutive Russian opponents. After earlier wins over Vera Zvonareva and No. 17 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova, Svitolina met her match in 23-year-old Veronika Kudermetova. What happened is this: the 46th-ranked Kudermetova jolted Svitolina of Ukraine, 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3), for her fifth career Top 10 triumph and she extended her head-to-head success against Svitolina to 2-0.

In setting up an all-unseeded semifinal against the other Ukrainian, Marta Kostyuk, Kudermetova served 11 aces and unleashed 50 winners that overcame her 46 unforced errors during the two hour and 35-minute quarterfinal. Meanwhile, Svitolina finished with four aces, hit 19 winners and committed 35 unforced errors. Both won 108 points.

“It was a really tough match,” Kudermetova told Tennis TourTalk during her virtual chat with tournament media. “I think we both played very good. I tried to stay focused until the end. In the first set, I also played not bad, but I didn’t have a lot of chances. Elina played unbelievable. She had good serves today. I tried to fight, I tried to stay focused, and do everything for the win.”

When she was asked what beating Svitolina did for her confidence level, Kudermetova said: “Of course, it gives me a lot of confidence. First tournament, first semifinal in a tournament this big for me. I feel really happy. I had a good preseason and now I’m playing better and better.”

News & noteworthy

Following this week’s burst of activity in Abu Dhabi, here is how the WTA rankings expect to shake out as players head off to Melbourne:

Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep will remain at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.

Sofia Kenin will remain at No. 4 after losing in the Abu Dhabi quarterfinals.

Elina Svitolina will stay at No. 5.

Aryna Sabalenka can move up to No. 9 if she wins the Abu Dhabi title.

Maria Sakkari can improve on her ranking by reaching the final. She can move to No. 21 as a finalist. She can move to No. 18 by winning the title.

Veronika Kudermetova, Sara Sorribes Tormo and Marta Kostyuk will all improve on their career-best rankings by reaching the quarterfinals, and Kudermetova and Kostyuk by advancing to the semifinals.