Sakkari Through To Indian Wells Semifinals With Hope And Faith On Her Side

Maria Sakkari (photo: WTA Tour video)

INDIAN WELLS/WASHINGTON, March 18, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Greece’s Maria Sakkari is no stranger to playing quarterfinal-round matches in tournaments where the stakes are big. Although the World No. 6 was appearing in just her first BNP Paribas Open final eight, it’s the eighth time Sakkari has been a quarterfinalist at WTA 1000 level or above.

“I’m used to going deep,” Sakkari said earlier this week in Indian Wells, where she took on World No. 20 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan Thursday afternoon on Stadium 1 for a berth in Friday’s semifinals.

“Now, I feel like it’s not something new for me. I would say from last year I started feeling like it doesn’t feel very tiring to go deep into a tournament. I think I just feel very comfortable now being in the later stages of the tournament.”

Sakkari has been ranked in the Top 10 since last September. She can climb to No. 2 if she wins the Indian Wells crown on Sunday. However, first thing’s first and that was trying to win her quarterfinal match.

The No. 6 seed Sakkari brought a 14-4 record into her match against the 17th-seeded Rybakina, who quietly went about winning all of her previous matches during the tournament in straight sets – Alison van Uytvanck, No. 13 seed Victoria Azarenka and No. 31 seed Viktorija Golubic – to arrive in the quarterfinals. Sakkari reached the quarterfinal round after stringing together wins against Katerina Siniakova, No. 27 seed Petra Kvitova and qualifier Daria Saville.

Although Rybakina held a 1-0 career head-to-head against Sakkari, thanks to a 3-set semifinal win at St. Petersburg in 2020, this time Sakkari handled the clutch moments the best. She rallied from down 1-4 in the first set and triumphed 7-5, 6-4 in an hour and 38 minutes, closing it out on her third match-point opportunity. It was Sakkari’s second Top-20 win of the season.

Sakkari broke Rybakina’s serve three times, won 74 percent (32 of 43) of her first-serve points, saved four of five break points, and outpointed her opponent 74-64. She never lost belief in her game, stayed aggressive during important moments and her competitive fire came through at the end. The victory was Sakkari’s ninth straight tour-level quarterfinal win – she’s not lost a WTA quarterfinal match since Doha last year – and now she looks ahead to a chance of winning the 20th WTA semifinal of her career on Friday.

“It was my first match in Stadium 1, so I have to say it was pretty successful,” Sakkari in her on-court interview. All of her previous matches in the tournament had been across the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on Stadium 2. “I’m very happy with the way I played. Obviously, some moments of the match were a little bit tight and I was a little stressed. I’m happy that mentally I got through. …

“I proved that I like to come back. I’ve come back many times in my career,” Sakkari added. “Today was one of those days. I just had hope and faith in myself. I’m super happy I got the win today.”

Defending champion Badosa remains unblemished

Next, Sakkari will play defending champion and fifth seed Paula Badosa of Spain, who eliminated No. 21 seed Veronika Kudermetova, 6-3, 6-2, in an hour and 23 minutes. The victory improved Badosa’s win-loss record this season to 13-4 and her career record at Indian Wells to 10-0. It was her first win against Kudermetova after suffering three straight losses.

Badosa finished her Thursday afternoon quarterfinal victory with five aces (she’s second in the WTA with 85), won a healthy 76 percent (28 of 37) of her first-serve points, saved the only break point she faced and outpointed Kudermetova 65-47. She won with power and smart thinking on the court. Badosa hit 17 winners and made just six unforced errors.

The World No. 7 Badosa gained an early break for a 3-1 lead in the opening set and won the set on her fourth set point after Kudermetova hit a sixth-shot forehand wide. Then, Badoda broke Kudermetova in the first game of the second set and increased it to a double-break 4-1 lead. From there, it was no looking back for the 24-year-old Spaniard. She handled the pressure points best and exuded the kind of confidence that’s found in champions.

“I’m very happy about today,” Badosa said. “I started to serve very well and I think that was the key and to stay very aggressive and not let [Veronika] move me [around] a lot.”

With another straight-set win, Badosa has yet to lose a set during her run to the semifinals. She previously put together wins over Tereza Martincova, Sara Sorribes Tormo and No. 19 seed Leylah Fernandez to reach the quarterfinal round. Last year en route to winning the title, she dropped just two sets in her six victories. Now, Badosa is into her 10 career semifinal.

Badosa will take a 1-0 head-to-head advantage into her semifinal matchup with Sakkari following a recent hard-court win in Guadalajara.

“Maria is an amazing player,” Badosa said during her on-court interview. “I’m really happy for her and her career. I think it’s going to be a match between two fighting players. I really respect her. I expect a really good match.”

Nadal taken to the brink, finds solutions to beat Kyrgios

Three-time Indian Wells champion Rafael Nadal stayed undefeated in 2022. However, it wasn’t a sure thing by any means. The World No. 4 from Spain survived one of his toughest tests of the season against 132nd-ranked wild card Nick Kyrgios. The mercurial Australian brought his emotional circus to Stadium 1, which at times helped him stay motivated but other times proved to be a distraction. There would be obscenities, underarm serves, a point penalty and smashed racquets – all from Kyrgios.

By the end, it was the cool, calm and collected Nadal who won 7-6 (0), 5-7, 6-4 in two hours and 45 minutes to improve to 19-0 and advance to Saturday’s semifinal round – his 11th in the Southern California palm desert.

“I think for moments I played well,” the fourth-seeded Nadal said during his post-match remarks. “It’s difficult to play against him, always tough because he changes the dynamic of the point very quick and his serve is huge, especially the first serve.”

It’s the third-best start to a season since the ATP Tour began in 1990. Only Novak Djokovic has started a season better in the ATP Tour era. He began 2011 by going 41-0, then went 26-0 at the start of the 2020 season.

“That one hit pretty hard. I felt like, honestly, I was the one to end the streak,” Kyrgios said during his post-match news conference. Instead of advancing to the semifinals, it’s on to South Florida for next week’s Miami Open, where he received a wild card into the main draw.

Kyrgios was two points away from serving out the first set, but was broken at 5-4. It was the first time he had been broken in the tournament. Soon, he imploded in the ensuing tiebreaker, which Nadal won 7-6 (0) after Kyrgios incurred a point penalty for an audible obscenity to end it. He had already received a warning for racquet abuse.

During the second set, in a bit of a plot twist, Nadal played what turned into a shaky service game at 5-6 that was punctuated by a double fault – one of seven he committed. Kyrgios capitalized on his opportunity. In what turned out to be a stunning point, he played a high backhand volley winner to break Nadal at 15 and won the set 7-5 to force a decider.

Soon, on serve through the first six games of the third set, Nadal got the break he had been seeking – thanks to Kyrgios’ fifth double fault – to take a 4-3 lead. It seemed to rattle Kyrgios, who complained vehemently with chair umpire Carlos Bernardes about the crowd noise that was generating from the end of the stadium he was serving from.

Regardless, Nadal backed up the break with a love hold and a 5-3 lead, needing to hold just once more to win his 19th straight match and reach his fourth straight semifinal of the season. Kyrgios held in his next service game and the outcome was on Nadal’s racquet as he served for the match. Quickly, Nadal reached match point at 40-love. He set up match point with his 10th ace. Then, Nadal closed out the victory with a seventh-shot overhead forehand smash winner.

“I think I played a good third set,” Nadal said. “Returning better. I was solid with the serve; I just suffered in one game with my serve. Nick is one of these kind of players that you’re going to have problems when he’s motivated.”

With the victory, not only did Nadal’s win-loss record this season remain unblemished, he also improved his career head-to-head with the moody Kyrgios to 6-3, which includes three straight wins. The Spaniard finished with 10 aces, 30 winners to 35 unforced errors and won 76 percent (67 of 88) of his first-serve points. Kyrgios countered with 12 aces, 34 winners and 33 unforced errors. He won 70 percent (58 of 83) of his first-serve points and 50 percent (12 of 24) of his second serves. Nadal outpointed Kyrgios 106-103.

“Tennis is all about the momentum sometimes,” Nadal said. “After the way that I finished the second with a couple of mistakes, I knew the beginning of the third will be so important and probably critical for me. So, I needed to save the first couple of games, and the then the match came back to normal and anything can happen.”

In the end, it was Nadal who kept his calm – showing incredible discipline and fight just like he did after turning a sure defeat against Sebastian Korda into a victory – while Kyrgios kept things lively if not boorish.

“It’s all about finding the solution in every moment,” Nadal concluded. “In this sport it’s not only about how you feel comfortable. It’s about how you can make your opponent feel uncomfortable, too.”

Alcaraz sets up all-Spanish semifinal with Nadal

Next, Nadal will face No. 19 seed Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinal round. The 18-year-old Spaniard from El Palmar, Murcia, Spain, defeated defending champion and No. 12 seed Cameron Norrie of Great Britain, 6-4, 6-3, in an hour and 44 minutes to reach his first ATP Masters 1000 semifinal. He’s the youngest semifinalist at Indian Wells in 34 years and second youngest since then-17-year-old Andre Agassi in 1988.

“I have no words to describe my feelings right now,” said Alcaraz, who will rise to become Spain’s No. 2 player next week and will be playing against Nadal, Spain’s No. 1, on Saturday. “I’m feeling good.”

Alcaraz struck 37 winners to 22 unforced errors, broke Norrie’s serve six times in eight tries and outpointed his 74-59. The British No. 1 was held to 22 winners and made 16 unforced errors.

Thursday’s BNP Paribas Open results

Friday’s BNP Paribas Open order of play

Around the Indian Wells Tennis Garden

No. 7 seeds Asia Muhammad of the United States and Ena Shibahara of Japan reached their first WTA doubles final after holding off No. 5 seeds Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada and Giuliana Olmos of Mexico, 7-6 (6), 3-6, 10-5. It was the second straight win for Muhammad and Shibahara over a seeded team. They previously upset No. 3 seeds Coco Gauff and Caty McNally, both of the United States, 6-2, 1-6, 10-7 in the quarterfinals.

Muhammad and Shibahara will face unseeded Xu Yifan and Yang Zhaoxuan, both from China. They defeated Alizé Cornet of France and Leylah Fernandez of Canada, 7-5, 6-1, in 76 minutes to reach their first WTA 1000 final.

By the numbers

Rafael Nadal‘s fourth-round victory over Reilly Opelka on Wednesday improved his record against Americans to 19-0 since he lost to John Isner at the 2017 Laver Cup.

Paula Badosa joined Martina Navratilova as the only women to have played at least 10 Indian Wells matches and maintain a perfect record. She’s the seventh player in tournament history to win 10 or more consecutive main draw matches. The others are Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Justin Henin, Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams and Ana Ivanovic. Badosa is also the first player to reach back-to-back semifinals at Indian Wells since Karolina Pliskova in 2016-17.

“Quotable …”

“I can enjoy my life outside the court. Especially right now that I’m more settled player, on the top. Of course … having a team that is fun and is not miserable, you can spend time with them. As I said, now in the U.S. I have my sister because she lives here. I try to have people around me, whether it’s my boyfriend or some friend of mine or my family. It always makes your life on the tour a lot easier.

“But I like the fact that I’m a normal person outside the court. I consider myself a fun person to spend time with.”

– World No. 6 Maria Sakkari of Greece, on her life balance on and off the court.