NEW YORK, NY, USA - When Sachia Vickery roared back from 2-6, 0-3 down to upend Garbiñe Muguruza in Indian Wells this year, it was a long-awaited star turn for the American - but behind her inspired play and viral celebration were years of hustle and grind.
As a Top 10 junior, Vickery scored wins over contemporaries such as Madison Keys and Anett Kontaveit; in 2013, she won the USTA Girls' 18s National Championships to earn herself a wildcard into her first US Open, where she made good use of it by beating Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the first round.
That year, the Miramar, Florida native also cracked the Top 200 - where she would stay for the next five years. At times, the next step was tantalizingly close - such as when she reached No.108 in 2015 after reaching the Nottingham quarterfinals and coming through qualifying at Wimbledon. But although Vickery would reach four WTA quarterfinals across every surface between 2014 and 2017 - Stanford 2014 on outdoor hard courts, Nottingham 2015 on grass, Bogotá 2016 on clay and Québec City 2017 on indoor hard courts - Vickery, as she admits now, was unable to find consistency in her form.
In the past year, all of this has changed in a big way, with the 23-year-old racking up milestones: the biggest title of her career in October at the Templeton ITF $60,000 event; breaking through to a WTA semifinal at last in Auckland in January - via her first Top 30 win over Agnieszka Radwanska, an emphatic 6-2, 6-2 upset, to boot.
All of this paved the way to that Muguruza stunner, which Vickery took 2-6, 7-5, 6-1, winning 13 of the last 16 games. Afterwards, she celebrated with the Wakanda salute from the film Black Panther - and with it, came to the attention of actors Chadwick Boseman, who liked Vickery's Instagram post of the salute, and Letitia Wright, with whom she shares Guyanese heritage. Since her turn in the Californian spotlight, Vickery has firmly established herself on Tour, following it up with a semifinal showing in Monterrey and, last month, a maiden win at Wimbledon; this week finds her perched at a career-high ranking of World No.75.
During an interview with wtatennis.com, Vickery expanded on what the secrets to her breakthrough are, what she's learned from those years stuck on the ITF Pro Circuit - and why Black Panther and the Williams sisters mean so much to her.
1. Vickery hired a new coach, Londoner Matthew Evans, halfway through last year - the first time she's had a full-time coach travel with her.
"We've done a lot of work on the serve - that's been the main priority," explains Vickery. "He really loves tennis - he's always watching it and studying it, and always looking for ways to help me improve my game. He's also worked with me a lot on strategic things on court - the percentages and all these kinds of things that I've never really worked on before. He brings the knowledge aspect to it."
Prior to last year, Vickery had been unable to commit financially to a traveling coach. "It's no secret that tennis is an expensive sport and when you're not in the Top 100, you don't make a ton of money," she sighs. "I've played these $10,000s and $25,000s and you're losing money every single week - sometimes depending on how you do that week, that's how you make it to the next tournament."
Paying for travel, accommodation and living costs for two just wasn't feasible - and Vickery could feel her game suffering. "[A lot of the inconsistency] was due to the fact that I was traveling by myself for a numerous amount of years," she explains. "I would just practice here and there, and I didn't really have any kind of structure. But once I committed to making an investment in getting a coach and a fitness trainer who travels with me every week, I'm starting to see the rewards of it."
2. Vickery doesn't come from a typical tennis background - and this has motivated her.
Raised by a single mother, Paula Liverpool, who had to supplement her income as a university administrator with a second job bartending, Vickery has long remembered not being able to have everything her peers did.
"I don't come from privilege and my mom had to work numerous hours just to even get me into tournaments," she recalls. "So when I got to tournaments I was so hungry, and I wanted to win so badly - and I think that's something I've carried with me throughout the years. I still kind of have that hunger because I know what it feels like to not be able to go to tournaments, or maybe not be able to have a full-time coach, or all these sports clothes that a lot of kids had. So that kind of brought like a desire to be that I still have today.
3. The hardest loss in Vickery's career proved to be a springboard.
At the US Open last year, Vickery had navigated her way through qualifying for the first time and defeated Natalia Vikhlyantseva for her first Slam main draw win since her debut four years previously. And she held two match points over wildcard Sofia Kenin to reach the third round - just one round further, but in terms of profile and paycheque, a giant leap.
Vickery couldn't take them. One, a swing volley that missed an open court, would haunt her for the rest of the match - which Kenin took with a tiebreak whitewash 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(0) - and even today, she remembers it clearly.
"I took it very hard afterwards," she admits. "But I think now I'm able to see that maybe losing that match was a great lesson for me. It was a difficult lesson, but I think one that I needed - and I don't think I would have won the big matches that I've won this year if it wasn't for those tough matches like that. Now I know, when I'm in those situations and then the third set tiebreaker, I can remind myself what I did wrong."
Vickery still considers that tournament her big break - not least because her paycheque, even if it wasn't a third-round one, was what directly enabled her to expand her full-time team. And even that nightmarish swing volley has its positive side. "My coach said that earlier in the year I wouldn't have even taken it on. So that kinda made me think, well, you know, at least I'm on the right path and doing the right things."
4. Vickery has been overhauling her game recently - and is finding success as one of the shorter players on tour.
One of the most startling statistics from the Muguruza upset was that Vickery had struck more winners than one of the biggest hitters on tour, 26 to the 2017 Wimbledon champion's 22. Having developed a counterpuncher's game and mentality growing up due to her superlative movement, Vickery is now seeking to expand her repertoire.
"What I'm trying to work on is adding to my game to be more of an all-round player," she says. "A lot of the matches that I played this year, especially the Muguruza match, showed me that I can play aggressive as well."
At 5'4", Vickery has also struggled to assert herself on a circuit that increasingly favours the tall and strongly built - particularly when it comes to serving. "I used to buy into that - I was like, I'm not strong enough, I just can't get my serve up," she remembers. "It was hard for me to get out of that mentality of I don't have a big serve, I can't blow these girls off the court and I'm always running in these rallies."
In a valuable lesson for shorter players at every level, Vickery has sought to change her way of thinking first. "I've focused more on percentages, but I have to be reminded every day to keep going after the serve, keep hitting it, don't just try to start the point with rolling the serve in the box - which is what I've done for a numerous amount of years," she said.
"Now, even when I play matches, I'm starting to accept that even if I double fault more, as long as I'm focused on really going after the ball, that's what I'm working on. And I think that's why my serve has improved - because I've been really open to the more aggressive part of it.
"I have a good work ethic and I've worked really hard physically in practice - so maybe it requires a lot more work, but I think it doesn't matter how tall or short you are; if you're willing to compete and grind every single point, and never give up in those matches, then I think there shouldn't be any reason why you can't compete with the top players."
5. Black Panther means more to Vickery than just a movie - and her childhood idols were Serena and Venus Williams.
Vickery is still rewatching the Marvel adaptation for inspiration - and even her family is starting to get sick of it, she laughs. Her shriek of joy when she discovered that lead actor Chadwick Boseman had liked her Instagram post nearly caused her mom to crash the car.
But there's a deeper meaning to for Vickery than just a pop culture reference. The Wakanda salute has been performed by black athletes across sports from football to rugby after successes. "I think one of the main reasons I did it was because I wanted to show people how proud I was to be a black athlete - especially in tennis where there's only maybe six or seven of us," Vickery reveals. "I feel like sometimes we don't express it a lot or don't talk about it enough - and I think it's really, really important, especially to the younger kids that are coming up. While I'm on the Tour, this is something I'm always going to be very passionate about."
Vickery recalls how important it was for her growing up to see Serena and Venus Williams having visible success: "In my tennis club in Miramar we'd always have the tournaments on TV, and it was just so weird to see somebody that looked like me - these two black girls that wore beads in their hair," she reminisces.
"I used to wear beads to school all the time - it was just the thing back then - and I just thought it was this unbelievable sight because I had never seen it before [on a tennis court]. And they were just so good and so powerful, and I just looked up to everything about them."
Indeed, Vickery still treasures a memory of training with Richard Williams as a junior during one summer. "That was an amazing experience for me," she recalls. "I was really young then and to get to watch Serena practice every single day - she trains and works so hard, she dedicated every fiber that she has into training."
Richard, in fact, has made sure to keep in touch over the years. "He's always encouraged me and sent me positive notes," says Vickery. "Even if he sees that maybe I've had a few tough losses, he'll be like, no, just keep going, don't be afraid and you'll find it. Mainly about positivity - that's the main thing he tries to tell me."
6. Vickery is in touch with her Guyanese heritage - and has been running a program there for underprivileged children.
Vickery visits her mother's home country whenever possible - "at least once or twice a year" - and has been running a program there for several years in which she brings rackets, clothes and shoes to Guyanese children. "I literally just bring everything that I can to try and to try and help out, or if there's young kids who want a hit with me or to ask me questions," she explains. "It's actually a dream of mine in the future to open a tennis academy and let all the kids have an opportunity to play tennis - because I saw how much they really loved it. It was amazing."
However, Vickery would also like to clear up a rumor that circulated at the start of this year. "I'm not going to play for Guyana - I'm American born and raised, and that's just not something that's going to happen," she says. "I'm passionate about Guyana, but I'm American and I'm going to be representing the United States."
7. Vickery would have been a marine biologist if she hadn't been a tennis player - and her favorite singer is Amy Winehouse.
"I know every single one of Amy Winehouse's songs by heart," Vickery says. "She's definitely my favorite artist of all time. But I also love hip-hop and R&B."
Having recently posted an Instagram caption of a Cardi B lyric, it's no surprise that the Bronx rapper's debut album has been Vickery's listening choice recently. "Oh my God, I love Cardi B!" she exclaims. "The album is pretty cool. My favorite song? I really like 'Bartier Cardi'."