Sakkari Ends Osaka’s 23-Match Winning Streak

Maria Sakkari (photo: courtesy of WTA video)

MIAMI/WASHINGTON, March 31, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Maria Sakkari arguably played the best 69 minutes of tennis in her professional career. The rising Greek star, seeded 23rd, ended the 23-match winning streak of World No. 2 Naomi Osaka at the Miami Open presented by Itaú, 6-0, 6-4, Wednesday afternoon.

The look on both players’ faces at the end of their quarterfinal match showed their contrasting differences. One was all smiles and exuding pure joy and happiness, while the other was filled with sadness and dejection. It was Sakkari’s 12th victory of 2021 in her 17th match. She’s riding the crest of a four-match winning streak and now advances to her first Miami Open semifinal. The World No. 25 Sakkari will face either No. 8 seed Bianca Andreescu of Canada or unseeded No. 58 Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain.

“I don’t think tennis-wise it was like the best tennis I have ever played in my life,” Sakkari told Tennis TourTalk during her virtual press conference. “I think I executed our strategy with Tom (Sakkari’s coach Tom Hill), you know, really well. I just did what I had to do. I’m not going to tell you what.”

By this time, Sakkari had a big smile on her face as she continued her thought: “I think what we discussed before the match was, I just did it most of the match except, you know, maybe a couple of games where, you know, things didn’t go right. But overall I think it was the execution of the strategy.”

The second-seeded Osaka came into the quarterfinal round against Sakkari having won three of their four previous meetings. The last time the Japanese superstar lost a match was 13 months ago on February 7, 2020, against Tormo during a Fed Cup competition between Japan and Spain in Murcia, Spain on clay. Meanwhile, first-time Miami quarterfinalist Sakkari arrived fresh from having saved six match points in her fourth-round victory over Jessica Pegula two nights earlier, feeling a sense of confidence and determined to keep pushing forward.

“Of course, winning a match from six match points down gives you a lot of confidence,” Sakkari explained to Tennis TourTalk. “As I told you and everyone in our previous press conference, these wins, it gave me a lot of confidence. I don’t know how it works for other players, but it normally gives me a lot of confidence.

“Coming into that match I was feeling great with my tennis, and I think I just, you know, really enjoyed myself out there.”

Perhaps, in the back of her mind, Osaka (now 12-1 in 2021) knew that if World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty did not make Saturday’s Miami Open final, she would regain the No. 1 ranking should she lift the winner’s trophy. Instead, that is all for naught and Barty will retain the No. 1 ranking for now.

When Tennis TourTalk asked Osaka during her virtual press conference what could be learned from her loss to Sakkari, she replied: “What can I learn from the loss? I’m not really sure right now. I mean, I knew that, like, going into the match, we have played a couple of times, and I knew she’s like a really big fighter, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

“But I’m not really sure, because I felt like I haven’t been playing well this whole tournament, like I couldn’t find a groove, so mentally it’s really hard for me to, I don’t know, like play against really high-quality players with what I feel is low-quality tennis.

“Yeah, I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to learn from today.”

As Wednesday’s match unfolded under partly cloudy skies and 84º (F) heat, Sakkari bageled Osaka to win the 21-minute first set. While Sakkari played solidly, the World No. 2 played listlessly and without any rhythm throughout as evidenced by her serve being broken three straight times. Osaka placed only 35 percent of her first serves in play and hit zero winners while committing 12 unforced errors. Sakkari outscored Osaka 26-8 and took advantage of nearly every opportunity that came her way.

“I can’t believe how well she played that first set,” Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova said, commenting for Tennis Channel’s broadcast in the U.S., said of Sakkari’s good fortune of winning the opening set 6-0.

Soon, Osaka began to come to life at the start of the second set and broke Sakkari for the first time while holding her own serve in consecutive games for a 3-0 lead. It was the first of only two break points Sakkari would face all afternoon. Osaka increased her second-set lead to 4-1 and everything looked like it was righting itself. Then, Sakkari caught a spark – regaining her rhythm along the way – and went to work, never giving in. Her returns starting hitting the lines, she hit lobs that proved effective and put a halt to Osaka’s momentum.

“I just had a little bit of time in the changeover and thought about, focused on the strategy again. I think I lost that a little bit in the beginning of the second set,” Sakkari said. “So focusing on my strategy was the key.

“I knew that if I can break her back, then, you know, I can serve clever and I can serve the right way to just come back and win the second set, as well.”

As it happened, Sakkari would go on to win the last five games of the match, breaking Osaka’s serve in her final two service games. Finally, in the last game, she delivered her second ace of the match as the momentum built, and four points later on her first match-point opportunity, Osaka hit a long return that abruptly grounded a four-shot rally. There was a sense of both joy and agony coming from the Grandstand crowd, depending upon whom fans had a rooting interest in. Sakkari hit 22 winners, Osaka just five – plus she committed 23 unforced errors. Sakkari outpointed her fallen opponent 64-42.

Elated by the outcome of the match, Sakkari broke out a big smile on her face, then ran over to hug her coach, Tom Hill. Soon, during her on-court interview, Sakkari took her time to try and convey what she would later say in her virtual press conference was one of her biggest victories of her career. She said: “I have no words; I’m speechless. … Comebacks are my trademark.”

Youth is being served in Miami

This year, for the first time since 1996, seven of the eight players in the Miami quarterfinals are 25-and-under.

On Wednesday, the top half of the Miami Open quarterfinals featured top seed and World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev against No. 7 seed Roberto Bautista Agut and first time-ATP Masters 1000 quarterfinalists No. 21 Jannik Sinner against No. 32 Alexander Bublik. All but Bautista Agut are playing in their first Miami quarterfinal.

During the day session match, the 19-year-old Sinner came in looking for his second win over Bublik in the two-straight tournaments – and he did it. After the Italian #NextGenATP star rallied for a 2-6, 7-6, 6-4 second round victory over Bublik in Dubai on March 16, he built upon that win by triumphing, again, on Wednesday afternoon. Sinner won 7-6 (5), 6-4, hitting 28 forehand winners, to advance to his first Masters 1000 semifinal.

While Bublik was the first player from Kazakhstan to reach an ATP Masters 1000 quarterfinal, Sinner became  the fourth Italian to reach the quarterfinals (or better) in Miami Open history – and the first since Fabio Fognini in 2017.

During his virtual press conference, Sinner was asked if this has been his best week as a professional, making it to his first Masters 1000 semifinal. He said: “Well, it’s tough to say, you know, if something or some week is the best week I have had because, yeah, maybe it can be but maybe not. It depends how it goes.

“Obviously I’m very happy being in the semifinal, but, you know, after tomorrow I have a tough match once more. It’s not easy, for sure.

“Saying ‘best week’ I think is difficult. If somebody ask me what has been your best week, it’s tough to answer. We will see at the end of the week (smiling). Then we see.”

Meanwhile, on Thursday, 20-year-old American Sebastian Korda, playing in his first Masters 1000 quarterfinal, will face World No. 4 Andrey Rublev. Also, No. 2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas will oppose No. 26 seed Hubert Hurkacz, looking for his sixth career victory against him.

Wednesday’s Miami Open results – WTA

Wednesday’s Miami Open results – ATP

Thursday’s Miami Open order of play

Upsets aplenty for top doubles teams

As both men’s and women’s doubles pare down to the semifinal round by the end of play Wednesday, both of the top seeds were eliminated early.

Men’s No. 1 seeds Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah, both from Columbia, were bounced in the second round by Marcelo Arevalo of El Salvador and Horia Tecau of Romania. Meanwhile, No. 2 seeds Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic, both of Croatia, are the highest remaining seeded team. On Wednesday afternoon, they defeated Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia and Assam-Ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan, 6-2, 6-2, to earn a berth in the final four against No. 7 seeds Rajeev Ram of the United States and Great Britain’s Joe Salisbury, who defeated the U.S. duo of Sebastian Korda and Michael Mmoh, 7-5, 6-2.

No. 4 seeds Ivan Dodig of Croatia and Filip Polasek of Slovakia reached the semifinal round with a Tuesday win over Oliver Marach of Austria and Luke Seville from Australia. They will face the British duo of Dan Evans and Neal Skupski, who went the distance to beat Arevalo and Tecau, 6-7 (6),6-3, 11-9.

In the women’s draw, the top-seeded team of Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus and Elise Mertens from Belgium were eliminated in the first round by the Grand Slam singles champions dream team of Romania’s Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber of Germany in straight sets. However, a shoulder injury to Halep forced her to pull out of both doubles and singles.

Then, second seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, both from the Czech Republic and ranked in the Top 10, lost in the second round to American upstarts Coco Gauff and Caty McNally. The No. 3 seeds Nicole Melichar of the United States and Demi Schuurs from the Netherlands were bounced in the first round, too.

As of Wednesday, only two seeded teams remain: No. 8 seeds Hayley Carter of the United States and Luisa Stefani of Brazil, who are through to the semifinals after beating U.S. pair Asia Muhammad and Jessica Pegula on Tuesday, and No. 5 seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara, both from Japan, who beat Caroline Garcia of France and Nadia Podoroska of Argentina, 6-3, 6-2, in a Wednesday afternoon quarterfinal.

Carter and Stefani will face Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada and Giuliana Olmos of Mexico in one semifinal on Friday while Aoyama and Shibahara will meet Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States and Iga Swiatek from Poland, after they advanced with a 6-1, 6-4 win over Lyudmyla Kichenok of Ukraine and Jelena Ostapenko from Latvia.

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

• Men’s top seed Daniel Medvedev, 17-2 coming into Wednesday’s quarterfinal match against No. 7 Roberto Bautista Agut, on whether his start to the 2021 season has met or exceeded his expectations:

“I don’t feel like it’s exceeding, because I had definitely high expectations, especially with the end of the season I had last year. I think it’s meeting the expectations, for sure.

“I always said I always want more. So, I played, what, three tournaments, I would love to win all three of them. Didn’t manage to do it. Had one final and won one, which is great. Forgot about ATP Cup, so makes it four.

“So, yeah, has definitely been a great start. Every match I play I want to win, try to win. Doesn’t work all the time. That’s for sure. But that’s my goal.”

• World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, who is the top seed in the women’s singles draw and will face World No. 5 Elina Svitolina in the semifinal round on Thursday, on how she effectively waits until the last second to commit to a particular shot and successfully manages points:

“It all comes down to practice, I think. At times I feel like I also want to be very clear with what options that I want to take, and I want to go with my instinct, my first instinct, my first choice.

“Often when I change my mind or alter the shot I’m going to hit for my opponent I find that I make errors. So, it’s important for me to just almost pick my spot, pick my shot, and try and execute.

“I think that’s just trained over time. I do feel at times I have more options with the slice and with a few different shots. But in saying that, most of the time I’m also choosing to me what feels like the obvious option, simple option, and I just try and execute.”

Passing shots