Playing well below her incredible potential, struggling to find rhythm and falling behind by a set with alarming regularity. It’s not exactly a recipe for a deep run in Tennis Paradise, but 2022 BNP Paribas Open runner-up Maria Sakkari didn’t get the memo.
The No. 7 seed has stumbled, staggered and fought to get to the semifinals, and by her own lofty standards her level hasn’t been awe-inspiring, but you know what has been?
Pugnacious, steely and relentless, the Greek has willed herself into the final four in the California desert, and now that she’s made it, she’s ready for a symphonic finish.
Throw in a few cymbal strikes, lean heavy on the trumpets and let the angels sing: Maria Sakkari is finding her form at Indian Wells, and the fact that she’s here, battling for what would be her biggest career title, is a testament to her evolution as a player.
Sakkari has revived her fortunes by rallying from a set down three times in her four matches here at Indian Wells. It’s been a bit bizarre, but also uplifting.
“It is strange, but at the same time, I’m just telling myself, ‘Look, you’re not playing your best tennis and you’re still winning and beating amazing players’” Sakkari said on Wednesday after rallying from a set down to defeat two-time Grand Slam champion Petra Kvitova. “I mean, my draw was, I would say, bloody tough.”
Sakkari isn’t kidding. Her draw has been brutal, and she has been brutally resilient, rallying from a set down against giant-killing American Shelby Rogers in the second round (after a bye) and 27th-seeded Ukrainian Anhelina Kalinina in the third round. In the round of 16 she took out former World No.1 Karolina Pliskova, but her coup de grace was flipping the script against Kvitova on Wednesday.
After her victory, which set up a massive semifinal with No. 2-seeded Aryna Sabalenka, Sakkari called it one of the best comebacks of her career.
“Not only was I down a set and a break, but she made me play like an amateur in the first set,” said Sakkari. “I had to try and focus on different things, I had to try and look at the other side of the net to see what I could do to put her in uncomfortable positions and I think it worked.”
Sakkari has never been one to shy away from putting in at the hard yards. Her stunning physique tells that story, but she’s gone above and beyond this year at Indian Wells.
“All I can say is I need a pedicure because my feet are bleeding so badly,” she said after defeating Kvitova.
Sakkari’s circuitous route to the last four has left her hopeful that there is another level to tick ahead of championship weekend at the BNP Paribas Open. A finalist last year, she is yearning for more in 2023.
“By just surviving and just finding ways, eventually I’m sure that my game is going to get better,” she said. “I really want to see how it’s gonna be when I will start feeling good with my game.”
Sabalenka owns the 4-3 lifetime edge over Sakkari but the Greek has taken their last two meetings. The 27-year-old Athenian has the utmost respect for the newly minted Grand Slam champion, and knows she’ll be in for her toughest test yet.
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“I knew that she was gonna win a Grand Slam,” she said of Sabalenka’s run to the 2023 Australian Open title. “It actually came, and I was very happy for her. She’s a very nice girl. She’s very fun to be around. It’s going to be very, very tough, because she’s feeling the ball really well.”
No matter what happens to Sakkari this weekend, her wild ride to the semifinals has been a confidence booster. She can rest easy knowing that she doesn’t have to play perfect tennis to win against the WTA’s elite.
“Sometimes maybe I’m too hard on myself, just expecting too much on the court,” she said. “Sometimes, you know, my base level is better than I think.”