No.4 seed Maria Sakkari had to dig deep to get the better of top seed Aryna Sabalenka 7-6, 6-7, 6-3 to book her spot in the semifinal at the Akron WTA Finals Guadalajara. Her victory came on the final day of round-robin play for the Chichen Itza group. The victory boosted Sakkari to 2-1 in group play and dropped Sabalenka to 1-2. As a result, the 26-year-old Greek star joined group winner Paula Badosa in progressing through to the semifinal. Sakkari will now face Teotihuacan winner Anett Kontaveit for a place in the final.
“Obviously my season is not finished yet, but this tournament has been very successful after today’s win,” Sakkari said after the match. “I’m just very, very happy that I still show good emotions on court, I still play with my heart even though it’s been 11 months since we started this season. I’m just going to enjoy tomorrow’s match.”
Both the opening sets went the distance on the night. In a closely-fought affair, they both needed tie-breaks to separate them. The third set was initially an end-to-end contest, but soon the tables turned. From 1-3 down, Sakkari broke Sabalenka twice to earn a break advantage and reeled off the last five games, sealing the victory after 2 hours and 47 minutes.
“I think that it was my first night match and that played a huge role in my game of how the ball really felt,” Sakkari said. “I only practiced once before the tournament at night, so it was kind of new for me. I don’t know, it was weird because Aryna, she’s very long, she’s very tall, it’s tough to get serves through her. Once I got a pattern that worked well, I just kept doing what I felt was working. I just went for it.”
“I think it was a rollercoaster match from both of us,” Sakkari said. “I was up a break, then she was up a break. It was just a matter of who took the chances. I think at the end I just played with my heart and fought well, just turned things around.”
It is interesting to note that Sabalenka entered the WTA Finals as the tour leader in double-faults, hitting 296 during the regular season. “I just couldn’t find my rhythm,” Sabalenka said.
“The whole match I was really struggling with my serve. On some moment I found it, and on some moment I couldn’t do anything with my serve. It’s a tough match. Just crazy how bad I was serving in the last matches, especially this week. I guess a lot of work in the pre-season I will do.”
Next up for Sakkari is a match against Kontaveit. “I told her in Moscow that I’m going to see her here,” Sakkari said. “I’m very glad that she’s here because she’s a very nice person and she deserves it. But it all comes down to obviously who plays a better match tomorrow. I’m going to fight for it, do whatever I can to advance to the final. I just really want to enjoy tomorrow’s match because the atmosphere here is just unreal.”
“I’m not going to have so much time to rest. My fitness level is, I believe, one of the best on tour, without being arrogant, but I believe fitness is one of my strengths. I’ll do everything to recover. If Anett is better tomorrow, it’s too good. But I’ll try to recover and just take advantage of the good things I felt today on the court.”